Disgraced consultancy PwC is refusing to reveal the “terms of reference” — the instructions it set — for its secret internal investigation into its decade-long tax leaks affair.
Six weeks after announcing it had appointed businessman Ziggy Switkowski to conduct what it called an “independent review”, The Klaxon can reveal PwC Australia has never disclosed what he’s been specifically tasked with — and that it’s steadfastly refusing to do so.
Over the past three weeks — most recently yesterday afternoon — PwC Australia and its CEO Kristin Stubbins have repeatedly rejected requests from this publication for the straightforward information.
“There’s only one reason why you’re not releasing your terms of reference,” governance expert Dr Andy Schmulow told The Klaxon last night.
“And that’s because you know you’ve set up a sham inquiry”.
“That’s because you know you’ve set up a sham inquiry” – Dr Andy Schmulow
The revelations come as a Senate inquiry — comprised of politicians from all major parties — on Wednesday found PwC had engaged in a multi-year cover-up of the scandal.
In an interim report called “PwC: A calculated breach of trust” the inquiry found PwC was continuing to obfuscate, with its actions indicating “poor corporate culture” and a lack of “governance and accountability”.
“PwC does not appear to understand proper process, nor do they see the need for transparency and accountability,” the report states.
“Given the extent of the breach and subsequent cover-up now revealed on the public record, when is PwC going to come clean and begin to do the right thing?”
“Given the extent of the breach and subsequent cover-up…when is PwC going to come clean?” — Australian Senate inquiry
Senator Barbara Pocock addressed the scandal in Parliament on Wednesday night. Source: Twitter
In a scam it called “Project North America”, PwC took top-secret Australian Government data and sold it for millions of dollars to multinationals seeking to evade Australian tax.
Former PwC tax partner Peter Collins was engaged by Treasury from 2013 to help draft new tax laws, but despite signing confidentiality clauses over several years he shared government plans widely within PwC, which then sold the data.
The Federal Government’s little-known Tax Practitioners Board (TPB) made findings against both Collins and PwC Australia, in November and December respectively, after multi-year investigations.
The matters became public after the TPB posted a statement on its website on January 23.
The scandal exploded on May 2 when a 144-page cache of heavily redacted internal PwC emails regarding scam, between scores of PwC partners and staffers, was released.
On May 8 PwC Australia’s then CEO Tom Seymour – who had earlier falsely claimed there were “no findings at all” that dozens of PwC partners and executives were involved – resigned, “effective immediately”. (Three days earlier he had conceded there “were a number of partners who … remain in senior roles within our firm who were the recipients of (the) emails” – of which he was one.)
On May 15 PwC released a statement saying it had appointed businessman Switkowski, who is the chair of embattled casino giant Crown Resorts, to conduct a “review”.
Switkowski would “lead an independent review of the firm’s governance, accountability and culture”, the statement said.
Yesterday we went back to PwC (and again to Stubbins directly) seeking the terms of reference “in light of the Senate interim report published last night” which “has criticised PwC for a failure to engage with media, among other things”.
PwC and Stubbins again refused to answer.
Once more, Lane alone responded. This time he emailed us PwC’s earlier May 15 statement announcing the Switkowski review.
It also does not contain the terms of reference.
Schmulow, who is one of the nation’s top governance experts and an Associate Professor in Law at the University of Wollongong, said the idea that PwC could conduct its own “independent investigation” was “absurd”.
Schmulow told The Klaxon last night that PwC’s refusal to disclose the terms of reference “is evidence of what I am saying”.
“The terms of reference determines whether it’s a real investigation or a sham,” he said.
“You can define the terms of reference so narrowly to make sure you find nothing, it’s where you can manipulate the process.
“But because so often no-one looks at an inquiry’s terms of reference (entities) often get away with it,” Schmulow said.
“The terms of reference determines whether it’s a real investigation or a sham” – Dr Andy Schmulow
He continued: “If you have nothing to hide you put the terms of reference in the public domain – especially when your name’s PwC”.
“And then, especially when the whole world is saying ‘you’re a bunch of shysters and can’t be trusted’. That’s when you put your terms of reference in the public domain,” Schmulow said.
In its report Wednesday the Senate inquiry said “in addition to its history of cover-up”, PwC’s “recent response” had been unsatisfactory.
“PwC has given every appearance of attempting to minimise the seriousness of the issue, hoping that standing down its CEO, Mr Seymour, and announcing the Switkowski review of PwC Australia’s culture, governance, and accountability, would suffice to assuage public concern,” it states.
“The open letter on 29 May 2023 from acting CEO, Ms Kristin Stubbins, came nearly six months after Mr Collins and PwC received sanctions from the TPB.
“It is PwC’s first public response to the issue. There have been no media conferences or public interviews beyond this simple letter,” the report states.
“There have been no media conferences or public interviews beyond this simple letter” – Senate report
The Senate report continues: “Even so, the letter from Ms Stubbins conspicuously avoids addressing the key issues at the heart of the matter…the unlawful misuse of confidential tax information obtained through a process of providing advice to government, which was monetised for the benefit of the firm and its clients”.
“This was a calculated breach of trust,” the Senate report states.
“It is clear that the desire for personal gain trumped any obligations that PwC had to the Commonwealth of Australia and its citizens”.
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