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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Down in the sewer for Queensland Labor mates ...

Something for everyone.

Alleged corruption.

Labor mates.

Confirmation that little is really known about industrial waste coming out of hospitals and the potential dangers to the community.

$2.1 million contract. $100,000 spent. Where's the $2 million?

The Australian:

Down in the sewer for Queensland Labor mates

26 August 2009

Young scientist Ben Kele had his first taste of the cut-throat world of business and politics when Queensland's Crime and Misconduct Commission came knocking.

A typically impoverished post-graduate student at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Kele was waiting for officials to respond to his groundbreaking work in the bowels of the state's sewers, where he had spent months testing the toxicity of waste flowing from regional hospitals and remote health clinics.

The testing, commissioned by health minister Gordon Nuttall, had never been done before. It found that children in remote communities across the state were being made sick from leaky pipes and unsanitary practices in health facilities. But when the CMC investigators arrived, Kele was stunned to learn he may have been duped by a company of Labor-connected businessmen, including then senior Beattie government MP Gary Fenlon, and his work was about to go down the drain.

It all came to a head yesterday with the CMC announcing they would charge Nuttall - jailed last month for seven years for corruptly receiving $360,000 in secret payments from two mining executives - over the taxpayer-funded study that Kele had once hoped would be his legacy.

Nuttall will face court next month for allegedly taking $150,000 in bribes from long-time friend and Brisbane businessman Brendan McKennariey in relation to the wastewater study and a training program in indigenous communities.

McKennariey, whose daughter once worked in Nuttall's electorate office, has not been charged and is believed to have been offered indemnity to give evidence against the former health and industrial relations minister.

But for Kele - first courted in 2003 by McKennariey, Fenlon and former Labor staffer Graham Doyle to sell wastewater treatment technology he developed as a student - the experience has been a lesson in the hard world of business.

"It was like eating the apple in the Garden of Eden," he told The Australian yesterday.

All three were major shareholders in GBG Project Management Services, which convinced Kele to "commercialise" his new technology.

Kele says he has since lost money on the deal and his reputation has been damaged.

The first he knew there was trouble was when the CMC told him that the government had paid $2.1 million for the wastewater study.

Kele and his two colleagues were told there was only $100,000 available and they personally took pay cuts, receiving just $5400 each for four months work, so that the rest of the money could be spent on laboratory tests.

What they found was startling.

Their report details links between the sickness of indigenous children in remote Queensland communities and their coming into contact with wastewater laced with toxic chemicals produced by regional health facilities.

They also found antibiotic-resistant organisms were present in treated water outflow from other regional hospitals.

"We expected this to make a huge mark and for more work to be immediately done," he said.

"But once the CMC became involved with the corruption allegations, we heard nothing - it became political and no one wanted to touch it.

"I have no idea whether these problems have been fixed."

A spokeswoman for Queensland Health last night said all of the recommendations of the report had been implemented.

The CMC and Director of Public Prosecutions have refused to detail the allegations or their investigation into the two contracts; a 2001 workplace health and safety program and a 2004 wastewater study.

The first contract was awarded by the Department of Industrial Relations, when Nuttall was minister, and the second was awarded by Queensland Health, just before Nuttall was dumped from that portfolio. Sources have told The Australian of the circumstances leading up to the $2.1m health contract, as well as the involvement of Labor-linked businessmen, former bureaucrats and the exploitation of some of the state's emerging scientists.

At the centre of the allegations is GBG Project Management Services. The company's name carries the first name initials of Fenlon (who retired from politics this year), Doyle and McKennariey. Unlike the other two, Fenlon did take a seat on the board despite his 13 per cent holding.

Fenlon has not responded to repeated approaches from The Australian. Doyle, who resigned as a director in December, and McKennariey have also refused to comment.

According to sources close to the CMC investigation, soon after Fenlon convinced Kele in 2003 to allow GBG to commercialise the technology the young scientist had developed, the company wrote a letter to Nuttall suggesting he launch a study into the toxic wastewater dumped by hospitals and clinics in regional and remote Queensland.

It is not known what discussions had been going on between Nuttall, then health minister, and GBG directors. A few months later, GBG approached John Gowdie to be project manager. No allegation of wrongdoing has been made against Gowdie.

Months later, expressions of interest were called and the GBG-led group is understood to have been the only tenderer.

Queensland Health capital works and asset management head Geoff Stevenson - who quit the public service to join GBG as chief executive - awarded the contract to GBG.

Stevenson has previously refused to discuss the contract with The Australian.

Kele jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the study because the area had long been neglected. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; little is really known about industrial waste coming out of hospitals and the potential dangers to the community," he said yesterday.

He wasn't surprised when Central Queensland University was told the budget was only $100,000. Two other scientists, Billy Sinclair and Barry Hood, were recruited.

"The three of us basically worked for nothing - we were paid $5400 each for about four months work of climbing down into sewers and drains to get samples," he said.

"Poor Billy - this guy is Scottish and he is afraid of creepy crawlies and down in the drains he was covered in some pretty big cockroaches. But we wanted to keep the wages down so that we could pay for the lab tests, because the samples need to be tested within 24 hours. We were sending samples off at four in the morning, I bribed the ladies in courier companies with chocolates."

Kele was gutted when the CMC told him GBG had been paid millions for their work. "It was a huge shock, and terribly disappointing," he said.

His involvement with the Labor mates, as he now calls them, started out innocently enough.

While he was developing his pioneering wastewater treatment system, Kele was buying stacks of bamboo - which is used in the process - from a local supplier.

Kele says the supplier told a friend, Fenlon, about the young scientist's breakthrough.

Soon after, Fenlon called Kele "out of the blue", saying he wanted to have a meeting to discuss commercialising the 33-year-old's technology.

"Obviously, it was a great opportunity, and Fenlon then introduced me to his mates, McKennariey and Doyle," he said. "They offered to top-up my scholarship, dollar for dollar, and gave me some shares in the company and signed over rights to the system.

"They gave me some money for my study, but not what was promised and over the years I have lost money and I can't get out of the deal without spending a lot of money on legal fees.

"But the worst part is the damage that has been done to my professional reputation with this investigation; it makes my work ugly and depressing if I dwell on it."

See - The Australian - Down in the sewer for Queensland Labor mates.

Also see - Gordon Nuttall faces charges over $150k 'bribes'.

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