Ottawa is cracking down on a growing number of Canadians named in the Panama Papers, with the Canada Revenue Agency warning the 2,671 individuals or firms under review they should not expect a negotiated settlement.

The CRA has already launched 85 detailed audits of taxpayers, acting on information that was contained in the massive leak of confidential information from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in the spring. The figure shows the number of cases under audit has nearly doubled since May, when the CRA said it was looking into 45 cases.

The CRA has executed search warrants in a number of the 85 cases under audit over the summer, with more raids still in the works, agency officials have told The Globe and Mail.

Regarding the remaining 2,586 files that have been identified for review, a number of them could still be referred for a thorough audit, with little or no hope of any negotiated settlement with the CRA. Under the Voluntary Disclosure Program [VDP], the federal tax-collection agency can waive penalties and reduce interest for taxpayers who come forward, but the fact the agency has already initiated the review and audit processes means it is likely too late to apply.

“The taxpayers under audit cannot qualify for the Voluntary Disclosure Program,” said Chloé Luciani-Girouard, the press secretary for Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier.

She added that “it is highly unlikely” that any other individual or firm whose file is already under review would qualify.

“Given the significant information the CRA has in relation to the Panama Papers, any VDP request would be referred to Offshore Compliance agents who, barring any exceptional circumstances, would confirm that the taxpayer is not eligible because compliance interventions are planned for all identified participants,” Ms. Luciani-Girouard said.

Toronto tax lawyer Stevan Novoselac said the federal government has been increasingly vocal and pro-active in its efforts to catch what it now calls “tax cheats.”

“They are certainly approaching [the Panama Papers] firmly and aggressively,” he said in an interview. “The CRA’s message to the Canadian public is clear, the vice is going to continue to squeeze.”

Still, Mr. Novoselac said that in his view, a taxpayer who has yet to be notified in writing that the CRA has started any enforcement action could still apply under the VDP.

“For those people who have unreported offshore income, they should make sure their tax-reporting obligations are met and they should do that now,” he said.

The federal government announced in April that it was spending an additional $444-million in the fight against tax avoidance and evasion. The money will be used by the CRA in coming months to hire new officials for its audit team, including 100 new auditors to look into “high-risk multinational corporations,” Ms. Luciani-Girouard said.

“The minister firmly believes that hiding income and assets in foreign jurisdictions to avoid paying taxes is a serious issue that robs all hard-working Canadians of important services. By increasing Canada’s collaboration with international partners, we are taking an active role in ensuring a fairer tax system, where tax cheats face consequences for their actions,” she added.

Federal officials wouldn’t say how they got access to the Panama Papers, saying only that the CRA “obtained tens of thousands of records from multiple sources,” including its international counterparts.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained the Panama Papers from a German newspaper, sharing the results with select media organizations around the world. The first release of information from the Papers in April included information on 12 current and former world leaders, as well as 128 other politicians and public figures.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson stepped down as prime minister of Iceland after he was named in the first batch of 28,000 documents. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also included in the April document release for a suspected billion-dollar money-laundering ring involving his close associates.

The consortium went on to publish a searchable database of nearly 214,000 offshore entities in 21 jurisdictions, including information on hundreds of Canadian companies.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Sep. 26, 2016 6:00AM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Sep. 25, 2016 7:45PM EDT