Tax bill proposes clipping ACC wings
Although tax returns are a key document for investigating illegal wealth, the Income Tax Bill 2023 proposes making it impossible for Anti-Corruption Commission officials to access a suspect's tax files without a court order.
ACC officers fear that if the bill passes, investigations will become unnecessarily complicated and lengthy.
"Investigation officers use the tax return as an authentic document while filing cases. But the power is curtailed in the proposed act," said an ACC officer, requesting anonymity.
"Many corrupt individuals may get away. We don't know for whose benefit the power is curtailed," the officer added.
A parliamentary body was asked on June 8 to examine the bill and come up with a report in five working days.
The provision curtailing ACC investigators' power is clearly contradictory to article 20(2) of the Constitution which criminalises unearned income, said Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh.
Currently, the ACC launches an investigation after receiving a complaint of illegal wealth and asks the individual concerned for their wealth statement.
Officers then cross-check the statement in light of the tax return they obtain from the National Board of Revenue. Officers also verify the information of moveable and immoveable properties with records from banks and other organisations.
If the officers detect irregularities, they file cases with the ACC's approval.
But section 309 (2) of the proposed income tax bill says the ACC cannot seek income tax return unless there is a court order.
One of the mandates of the ACC is to dig out illegal wealth and it often says it will not let owners of illegal wealth sleep peacefully, said an officer.
"If the act passes without dropping the provision, such words will become a joke," he said, expressing his dismay.
Several officials pointed out that the proposed act would override the ACC Act 2004, which said that the commission might, at the time of inquiry or investigation into allegations of corruption, call for any report or information from government organisations.
It also gives the ACC the power to request the government to take action against organisations that fail to provide information.
The tax return has specific information of moveable and immoveable properties, an ACC officer said. "We cross-check those with the sub-registry office and banks. We may soon have to make wild guesses while investigating. This will not only take time but also reduce our chances to prosecute a corrupt person."
Since the sub-registry offices maintain the records manually, it will be almost impossible to find immovable property, he added.
Contacted, ACC Commissioner (enquiry) Mozammel Haque Khan said the government might have found the provision logical. "There is always an option to amend an act," he said.
Iftekharuzzaman said that the provision would drastically curtail the investigation capacity of the ACC.
"Creating such arbitrary barriers against access to key information on the spoils of corruption will have a crippling effect on the process of ensuring accountability for corruption in general and accumulation of income and wealth disproportionate to legitimate income in particular," he said.
"In reality, this appears to be designed to protect and promote abuse of power and corruption on the one hand, and further cripple the legal and institutional capacities of the state to control the cancerous disease of corruption on the other."
Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Finance, could not be reached over phone for comment.