The federal revenue agency can now hand the police possible evidence of serious crime — including terrorist activity — that it happens to come across while reviewing taxpayer files.
The Canada Revenue Agency gained the little-noticed new authority, which does not require a judicial warrant, through an amendment tucked into the government's most recent omnibus budget bill.
Previously, confidentiality provisions in the law prevented the agency from handing information about suspected wrongdoing, on its own initiative, to law enforcement. The exception was information that pointed to tax-related crimes.
The new provisions apply to offences including breaking and entering, vehicle theft, arson, corruption and kidnapping. They also allow authorities to pass along information about any offence with a minimum prison term, or one with a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The list of offences is disturbingly broad and amounts to a fundamental change in allowing the agency to hand information to police without a court-ordered warrant — even when the alleged crimes have nothing to do with taxes, said Toronto lawyer Glen Jennings.
"Where is this need coming from?" said Jennings, who has extensive experience with criminal and regulatory matters. "They still haven't provided examples of where this has come up before, so it still leaves me scratching my head."
Interim procedures for administering the new powers were issued to all revenue agency employees when the legislation received royal assent last June, said Philippe Brideau, a spokesman for the agency.
To date the revenue agency has not used the powers, Brideau added.
Officials expect to see "only a few instances annually where the new measures would apply," says a briefing note prepared for Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay.
"The provisions relate only to information gathered by Agency officials in the course of their regular duties," says the June 2014 note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. "This information exchange is one-way and will be closely controlled through a set of strict criteria."
Audits at stake
It's not clear to Jennings how tax officials would even come across information indicating criminal activity. But he says the new measures leave people undergoing a tax audit vulnerable — especially given the amount of personal information now stored on computers and smart phones.
'They come in and they start asking other questions. They want to see bank records, they want to see financial records out of computers.' - Toronto lawyer Glen Jennings
"They come in and they start asking other questions. They want to see bank records, they want to see financial records out of computers," he said. "And if that's where they're going to be gathering other information, then I think that should be very much of concern to people."
The revenue agency is assessing the privacy implications of the measures and will consult the federal privacy commissioner about the potential impact on taxpayers, Brideau said.
All potential referrals to police will be vetted by the agency's criminal investigations personnel and must be approved by the assistant commissioner of the department's compliance programs branch, the briefing note says.
Jennings said the new provisions could create a "chilling effect" that undermines the willingness of people to file tax returns if the revenue agency is seen as not just a tax collector, but also as a criminal investigator.