The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists.
Since January, the Australian consulting arm of accounting giant PwC, or PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been rocked by a scandal that began with a report by ICIJ member Neil Chenoweth in The Australian Financial Review.
Chenoweth revealed that while the PwC was profiting from a lucrative contract advising the Australian government on new tax laws for multinationals, some of its senior partners were using the intel to court clients seeking to sidestep those same laws. And the revelations kept coming — causing an upheaval within PwC and a global crisis for the Big Four firm.
Here, Chenoweth reflects on how the story unfolded and what it reveals about the powerful international consulting industry.
Carmen Molina Acosta: Hello and welcome back to Meet the Investigators from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I’m your host, Carmen Molina Acosta, a producer here at ICIJ, and I’m here with our online editor, Hamish Boland-Rudder.
Hamish Boland-Rudder: Good day, Carmen.
Carmen: If you’re joining us for the first time today, Meet the Investigators is a podcast, where we hear from ICIJ journalists from across the globe.
Hamish: Yeah, for today’s episode, I sat down with ICIJ member Neil Chenoweth.
Neil Chenoweth: Good day, I am Neil Chenoweth, I’m a senior writer with The Australian Financial Review, which is the national finance daily in Australia.
Hamish: Now Carmen, I’ve known Neil for quite a few years now, going back to ICIJ’s 2014 Luxembourg Leaks investigation. He’s one of those reporters who can break down some of the most complex financial schemes to find the real issues — and the big scandals.
This year, Neil’s been onto a cracker of a story here in Australia. It became a bit of an international crisis for auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC, as they’re better known.
Carmen: Here’s a snippet of Neil summarizing the story for an episode of his newspaper’s podcast, The Fin.
[CLIP FROM THE FIN: The story began back in January, when the punchiest little regulator you’ve never heard of call the Tax Practitioners Board, often called the TPB — they announced that they’d sanctioned the biggest accounting firm in the country, PwC, and its star international tax chief, Peter Collins.
More importantly, they explained why they had done this. Collins had advised Treasury from 2013 to 2018 on new laws. These new anti-avoidance laws, which were part of the OECD crackdown on multinationals not paying tax.
Well, despite signing three confidentiality agreements over that time, Collins blithely shared the confidential information he was getting from Treasury with his colleagues at PwC. They used it as part of a marketing drive to win new clients, selling solutions that side-stepped the new laws that Collins was helping Treasury to write.]
Hamish: To quickly bring us up to speed — PwC initially tried to shrug the story off as an isolated incident. But a trove of PwC emails was made public as part of a senate investigation into the scandal, and those emails showed that a number of PwC partners were involved, using secret government information to essentially pitch new tax schemes to huge multinational companies.
Carmen: So in short: you have a PwC consultant taking what they learned while helping the government write new tax laws, turn around and use that same confidential info to help the firm’s clients dodge those same laws?
Hamish: Yep, pretty much.
Neil, what’s been happening over the past few months? How have PwC and the Australian government responded?
Neil: The problem for PwC was it had spent months playing this down, saying it was just one bad apple; this guy Peter Collins, he crossed the line, but you know, he now left the firm, let’s move on.
But from the moment the Senate released the internal PWC emails late on May 2, it was clear this story just couldn’t wash. People were really angry about what it showed. I mean, there were 144 pages of emails. And while names have been redacted, you can still work out there were at least 50 people who are on these email chains. We broke the story on the Tuesday morning and that afternoon the CEO of PwC Australia, Tom Seymour, had a partners meeting and he said, “Look, all the people that were directly involved in these leaks have now left the firm.” By Friday, he was forced to say, well, actually, he was on the emails.
By the weekend, PwC Global was in a complete panic about it, they parachuted a team in to review and take control of the situation. By Monday, Tom Seymour, the CEO has stepped down. This was the first of a whole series of departures, which has cleared out most of the senior ranks of executives at PwC as they kept trying to find a way to bring the story to an end there. But it was always too little too late.
Hamish: From there, the crisis snowballed into a scandal of international proportions.
Carmen: Okay, I understand straits looked dire for PWC Australia — but what’s the worry in the bigger picture?
Neil: PwC had two concerns — PWC Global, I should say. First of all, the reason they got involved so early was that they were desperate to protect their U.S. clients. Because the whole scheme had been to allow big U.S. multinationals, like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Uber to sidestep these new tax avoidance laws that specifically targeted multinationals there. And now, these companies found themselves at the center of this huge scandal.
PwC Global’s second concern was that these weren’t just Australian emails. Because PwC partners in the U.S., U.K., Singapore and Ireland were also involved to varying degrees in the attempts by PwC Australia to make money from the leaked government information. And the risk here was contagion. They didn’t want this crisis in Australia to spread. So they cleared out most of the Australian executives and they brought in their own outside CEO, Kevin Burrowes. Meanwhile, the government, for its part, was filthy with PwC because it had accepted its assurances since January that it was all just one bad player. And the bipartisan response was just complete fury.
Carmen: The scandal dominated headlines in Australia for months. Top PwC partners were lambasted by senate committees, and the federal and state governments began closely scrutinizing all their relationships with audit firms.
Neil: And almost all government consultancy work by PwC was frozen or it wasn’t renewed. The consultancy arm for PwC was worth about a billion dollars and suddenly it was worth nothing. And in fact, they sold it to a private equity firm for one dollar.
Carmen: PwC found itself faced with three government inquiries and the biggest crackdown of financial advisors in Australian history.
Hamish: It’s really interesting how the stories have unraveled over time. And as you pointed out, Neil, it’s kind of gone through various iterations: PWC trying to cover it up, trying to hold it down. It feels like the story still has some legs — where do you think it’s heading?
Neil: PwC Australia is just caught up in this time loop of bad media, inadequate response, more bad media, you know, that they just can’t escape from. I think one of the questions that has been raised out of this has been the role of the Australian Tax Office and why it took nearly six years for all this stuff to come out after they first discovered these emails in 2017.
And Hamish, you have to bear in mind that the tax office didn’t want any of this to spill out into the public. It was this tiny regulator, the Tax Practitioners Board, which just has 150 staff as opposed to the 18,000 people at the ATO. They went beyond their brief. And this is the only reason the story has come out. The tax office still thinks all of this fuss has been unnecessary.
And it’s not that the tax office didn’t try to move the matter forward over those six years. They consulted with federal police, they talked to public prosecutors, they considered tax promoter penalties, and finally, they passed it to the Tax Practitioners Board. Or rather, they referred Peter Collins to the Tax Practitioners Board. Just him, no one else. And when the Tax Practitioners Board expanded this inquiry from just focusing on Collins and to look at the role of PwC itself, the tax office was absolutely furious and they refused to supply any more documentation to the investigators.
I think they wanted something done about it, but they didn’t want to rock the boat. And even this year, the tax office was vehemently opposed to the release of the emails to the Senate. So it’s this sort of dysfunctional relationship between PwC and all of the Big Four firms and the tax office, and the cozy deals behind doors that there are real questions about now.
Hamish: Yeah, I think that that’s a really interesting aspect of it because the crux of the scandal is this cozy relationship. Is this something that we see elsewhere for PwC? Is this a common practice for audit firms, for how they operate? You know, is this a pattern that we’re going to see globally?
Neil: The two mistakes you can make looking at this is to say a) it’s only us Australia that does stuff like this and b) it’s only PwC that does stuff like this. I mean, one thing made clear to me is that PwC is itself a global enterprise, like the multinationals that it serves, and all the Big Four firms are. And when it deals with multinationals, it’s not just PwC partners in one country that are involved — it’s a global solution. There’s transborder movement there.
Hamish: Reading your stories this year about the scandal, my mind of course went back to ICIJ’s 2014 Luxembourg Leaks investigation, which you were also involved in. That investigation revealed how these big audit firms were helping giant multinational companies cut their tax bills to almost nothing. Most of the leaked files we used for that investigation came from inside PwC. But around the same time, here was PwC in Australia, also advising the government on how to design its tax policy. It all feels very ironic.
Neil: In Australia, PwC was assuring me that they’d never get involved in tax avoidance advice, they’d never try to influence the tax office, that their habit of embedding PwC staff to work at Treasury at PwC’s expense while they paid their salaries, was just part of the firm’s public-spiritedness. What their quote was: “There was no conflict of interest in providing advice to the tax office whilst also providing professional advice to clients.”
That was their quote at this very time that these OECD documents that I talked about were being shared, that the whole Peter Collins stuff was starting to take off. And at the same time, PwC Luxembourg is pressing criminal charges for stealing data.
And then in April 2015, there the Australian Senate had a corporate tax inquiry and there was Tom Seymour, he was then the head of tax.
[CLIP OF TOM SEYMOUR: I have the utmost faith in the ethical standards of the people we employ. And I think we have a great contribution to make to how we make Australia’s tax laws work better.]
Neil: Sitting right beside him was our old friend, Peter Collins, and that kind of says it all about the ability to say one thing in public, and in private to do exactly the reverse
Hamish: I’m sitting here trying not to laugh on this recording because it almost feels comical at times the level of irony at this big global firm and what the left hand claims it didn’t know the right hand was doing.
Carmen: Hamish, I loved this part of the interview because I loved hearing you guys get to reminisce about your old investigations and the problems that continue to exist and you continue to investigate.
Hamish: Yeah, Neil and I have been working together for such a long time and sometimes I think we forget the size of these stories. And so I asked Neil if there was a moment working on this PwC investigation where the magnitude of the story really hit him.
Neil: I think when we got an advanced copy of the emails on May 1, it was just hard to believe this stuff. It was just like page after page of these guys obviously doing whatever they wished to. When they didn’t know something, they would just go to the Treasury or the ATO to find out, and then they got plugged into the whole scheme.
At the same time, there was so much need for speed because we had a slightly advanced knowledge of it, but you have to deal with it so quickly, so yeah, it was fraught.
The thing that I’ve learned this year is that if you report a story once, it doesn’t go anywhere, particularly for the Financial Review, which is a specialist publication. You have to write it and write it and write it and write it. So we’ve written stories every day for three months. And that’s an exhausting process. It achieves change, but it’s a pretty full-on experience. So I don’t know if there’s been enough time to kind of sit back because I think the story will continue to evolve, really.
Carmen: Neil is no stranger to big stories and investigations like this …
Hamish: Yeah, that’s right; he’s won Australia’s top journalism awards, authored a number of books. He’s covered some of Australia’s biggest financial scandals, from one of the country’s most infamous insider traders, through to exposés of Australia’s media empires — including a number of investigations into Rupert Murdoch’s businesses.
Neil, how do you approach these big investigations you work on?
Neil: I don’t think there’s any kind of simple solution. I think you just need to be completely committed to it. It’s like rock climbing. You’ve got to find a way up there.
Often, it’s just being able to juggle a whole bunch of different sources of information. And for me, it’s about producing a timeline.
I think you keep your notes as detailed as can be, you keep the timeline as integrated as it can be. It’s like a paper chase because all big transactions throw off bits of paper. So you need to think sideways in terms of ways of tracking this stuff and predicting where you might be able to find something to back up the story that you’re chasing.
And I think working with other people is great. I think you can learn a lot from watching other people’s techniques. They all have them and it’s one of ICIJ’s strengths, is to be able to kind of share them and watch how good other people are.
I’ve had a stutter since I was a child, it’s particularly bad on the phone. That’s not your natural kind of skill that you would look for in a reporter. And I think it was part of that made me look much more at: What is the documentary trail that I can look at?
The other thing is, when you’ve got a really big story, there comes a moment when the story pushes back. When the story threatens to disintegrate. You spent weeks or months or however long developing this case and they come back with a flat denial. It’s just not true. Boom, you know. And you have to reevaluate and think, well maybe I’ve just seen it completely wrong. And so what you’ve got to do is you have to make sure that your technique up to that point is solid enough that even when that denial comes in, you’re strong enough to say, “Yes, we can continue that story.” It’s not recklessness. It’s just being prepared.
Hamish: So Neil, you got your start as a cadet reporter straight out of university, working for The Brisbane Telegraph. How has journalism changed since you first got started in the field?
Neil: We used to phone all of our stories through. So you had these bank of telephonists back in the office who would then type out your stories. There’s nothing worse than having to go into a phone booth on a hot midsummer day and the person before you has just farted. That’s not a problem now.
When I started the Financial Review, 30 years ago, you had a computer monitor. But no Internet connection. And things have changed heaps from that.
The actual process of investigating is easier because of the multitude of other sources that you can turn to, while, at the same time, that same technological advance has undercut the economies of the newsrooms.
At the end of the day, you’re not going to be given the time or the resources to chase the stories that you want. And the difference is going to be your determination — that no matter what roadblocks that you have, no matter what restrictions you have, you’re still going to chase that particular story. You do it in your own time, if you have to pay for the searches yourself, that’s what you do, but it’s just your determination. That’s the only thing that will actually push you through.
Hamish: That was Neil Chenoweth! You can keep an eye out for more updates on the PwC tax leaks scandal at icij.org, or Neil’s reporting over at The Financial Review. That’s it for this month’s Meet the Investigators. I’m Hamish Boland-Rudder.
Carmen: And I’m Carmen Molina Acosta. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll see you next month.