Former lord mayor Jim Soorley was previous consultant to windfarm company that later got $150 million Queensland government power deal
Former lobbyist Jim Soorley chaired state-owned corporation CS Energy when it agreed to purchase $150 million worth of power from a wind farm company that previously employed him as a consultant.
State government ministers on the CS Energy board, who were required to sign off on the deal, confirmed Mr Soorley had discussed the wind farm’s operations with them when he was the chairman.
But the ministers said Mr Soorley did not tell them about his former consultancy work for the company.
The revelations were likely to raise new questions about the potential for conflicts of interest involving lobbyists and the Labor state government.
The August 2017 deal involved state government-owned CS Energy, then chaired by Mr Soorley, agreeing to a 10-year contract to buy $150 million worth of energy and large generation certificates from newly listed renewable power company Windlab Ltd.
Windlab Ltd, which began trading on the stock exchange that same month, was to provide the power to CS Energy from its yet-to-be-built wind and solar farm called Kennedy Energy Park.
Windlab Ltd was co-developing the park with a Japanese company at a site near Hughenden, about 330km south-west of Townsville.
The CS Energy power purchase deal came at a critical time for Windlab Ltd as shortly afterwards the company obtained nearly $100 million in finance from the federal government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to build the Kennedy Energy Park.
A press release from Windlab Ltd on October 18, 2017, said the Kennedy project had “moved quickly to close financing [with CEFC] after the execution of a power purchase with CS Energy”.
Industry sources say such future power “offtake” deals are critical for renewable energy companies wanting to obtain finance to build renewable energy projects.
Register shows Windlab was client of Soorley
At the time of the Windlab power purchase deal, Mr Soorley had been in the chairman’s role at CS Energy for about two years.
Prior to taking up the chairman’s role, Mr Soorley, a former Labor lord mayor of Brisbane, was listed as working as a lobbyist in Queensland.
A copy of Mr Soorley’s entry on the Queensland government’s lobbyist register for early 2015 lists him as having a client called “Windlabsystems”.
Prior to listing on the stock exchange, Windlab Ltd was known as Windlab Systems Pty Ltd.
Asked about his relationship with the company, Mr Soorley told the ABC he was previously “a consultant to Windlab in Australia”.
He said he provided “business advice” and was paid for services and that his work with the company finished in 2012.
He did not provide specific detail about what the “business advice” involved.
Mr Soorley said on his appointment as director and chair of CS Energy he fulfilled his fiduciary duties and “managed a historic employment relationship with Windlab”.
He said board discussions were commercial-in-confidence.
Mr Soorley has said he quit his lobbying work when he was appointed to the board of CS Energy in October 2015. He currently remains chairman of CS Energy.
Ministers not aware Soorley was consultant for Windlab
A Palasczcuk government spokesman said then CS Energy shareholding ministers Treasurer Curtis Pitt and Mark Bailey had not been aware Mr Soorley had been a consultant for Windlab when the $150 million deal occurred.
The spokesman said both ministers never met with Mr Soorley in his capacity as a consultant or lobbyist for Windlab.
He said in 2017, Mr Soorley, in his capacity as CS Energy chair, had discussed renewable energy projects including the Kennedy Energy Park project with Mr Pitt and Mr Bailey.
“Based on the advice of Treasury and the Department of Energy and Water Supply, then Treasurer Pitt and Minister Bailey gave final ministerial sign-off [to the Windlab power deal] as shareholding ministers in October 2017,” he said.
The spokesman said Mr Pitt was the acting energy minister when the agreement was reached between CS Energy and Kennedy Energy Park in August 2017.
He said in 2017, CS Energy was strategically refocusing on renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydro.
“The Kennedy Energy Park project was backed and supported by all levels of governments from across the political landscape,” he said.
Soorley not involved in power deal, Windlab says
Former Windlab Systems Pty Ltd executive Mark Sinclair, who was CEO of the company from 2007 to 2010, this week recalled Mr Soorley doing some work with the company in connection with the Kennedy park “to understand the landscape around who was who and how that was working”.
A Windlab spokesperson confirmed Mr Soorley being a “part-time contractor” for the company for a period up to 2012 to provide strategic project advice.
The spokesperson said Mr Soorley in his role as a contractor had not been involved in negotiations relating to a power purchase agreement for the Kennedy Energy Park.
Windlab later struggled to keep to its planned schedule of commercially producing power at the park by 2018, despite completion of the park’s 12 turbines, 55,000 solar panels, and four megawatt hours of battery storage designed to power 35,000 homes.
It did not begin producing power commercially until 2021 and then at below its full capacity.
In 2020, Windlab Ltd was bought out by iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Squadron Energy company.
The buyout involved Squadron Energy and Federation Asset Management paying $1 a share for the company.
At the time, the company’s shares were trading around 72 cents – well below the $2 a share price that accompanied Windlab’s initial public offering in 2017.
Call for investigation
This week, the state opposition’s Shadow Minister for Integrity Fiona Simpson, called for an investigation into the deal between CS Energy and Windlab.
In recent months, Mr Soorley has been at the centre of a controversy involving the Queensland Labor government.
Brisbane restaurant owner Neil Jedid brought a court case against Mr Soorley over claims he paid the former Brisbane lord mayor to lobby the state government for an extension of his restaurant lease.
He alleged that the lobbying then never took place, because Mr Soorley was not actually a lobbyist.
Mr Jedid alleged that in 2018 he gave Mr Soorley $2,500 in cash during a meeting in the car park of the restaurant to undertake the lobbying services.
He alleged Mr Soorley had incorrectly claimed to be a lobbyist and would lobby on his behalf to have the restaurant lease extended.
Mr Jedid is seeking the return of the $2,500, arguing he lost the lease.
Mr Soorley confirmed he accepted the $2,500 but said it was to act as a consultant and conduct research, investigations and the provision of feedback and advice on issues about the lease.
He also denied that he claimed to be a lobbyist or that he had approached a government minister about the situation.
Mr Jedid complained to Queensland’s Office of the Integrity Commission on September 9, 2020, alleging Mr Soorley had misrepresented himself as a lobbyist.
He said he believes his complaint had been on a laptop in the integrity commissioner Nikola Stepanov’s office, which has since sparked a dispute between Ms Stepanov and the Public Service Commission (PSC) over interference.
Ms Stepanov has alleged the PSC had entered her office and confiscated the laptop and wiped its memory.
In 2009, then Labor Premier Anna Bligh introduced a ban on lobbyists from serving on state government-appointed boards.
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