The strange case of the developer mayor, the kid's charity and the bottle of Grange

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Why did Gold Coast developer Mayor Tom Tate's register of interests show him accepting a bottle of Grange Hermitage from the Starlight Foundation? Managing editor David Donovan investigates.

AS SOON AS I started to look into Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate's register of interests, strange things started to happen. People started running for cover. Stories began to change. I was even, at one point, told to shut up and stop reporting.

And, sadly, the complete story was never fully uncovered. But one thing the gift of a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage 2010 to Mayor Tom Tate did expose was a culture of subterfuge, secret largesse and overweening entitlement at the top of our corporate and political systems.

Tom Tate: The developer mayor

Mayor Tom Tate is a colourful identity. An habitually rubicund, round-faced, grinning, bumbling, late middle-aged man, Tate was born in Laos in 1957 into a wealthy property owning family. An civil engineer by profession, he was a wheeler dealer developer before becoming the mayor in the last Gold Coast election, in 2012, and is still one today. His register of interests and ASIC searches reveal a confusing jumble of companies, trusts and other interests, and media reports show him to be still engaged in at least one major – and majorly controversial – Gold Coast property development project.

Tom Tate has coveted the head role at Australia's second largest council since at least 2007, when the Liberal Party raised a million dollar war chest to push him into power on a pro-development ticket. He failed then, but succeeded at the subsequent election, held on 28 April 2012. Tate’s most recent register of interests declare him to be a current LNP member. Reports suggest Tate has strong links to major Gold Coast development company Sunland, as well as new Turnbull minister and Moncrief MP Steve 'Slit her throat' Ciobo and disgraced Rolex receiving former minister Stuart Robert.

Controversy appears to dog Mayor Tate. One of the more prominent scandals involves the alleged “Crackerjack” style finangling of members out of the Surfers Paradise Bowls Club in 2005 for virtually “nothing”. He did this after convincing Bowls Club members he was there to “help” their cash strapped club. Instead, Tate took control of the club and speedily closed it down. It was only then that plans emerged that Tate’s company had plans to build a 60 storey, $300 million tower on their site. The mayor, however, denied any conflict of interest, saying he had “no knowledge” of the development plans. Just last month, the final block of land needed to complete the project was put out to tender by the State Government.

These sorts of business dealings seem to be a common practice for the developer mayor according to some other reports. Eyebrows have also been raised by Tate making secret deals, relaxing planning rules and hiving off blocks of Council owned land to developers in order to construct his pet project — a “cultural precinct”. In at least one case, sale of the land is contingent on Council development approval — an obvious conflict of interest for the approving body. In another case, a $1.6 million “gift” from high rise developers was allocated by Tate (and one other councillor, using a "delegated authority") to Tate’s legacy project – the cultural precinct – without being put to the rest of the Council for approval. In addition, a new development plan was put in place for the Gold Coast recently that, unsurprisingly, removes almost all existing restrictions on high-rise development.

But it his ready acceptance of generous personal donations that has garnered Mayor Tom Tate most negative publicity recently. Most notably, when he accepted in January 2015, from Singapore based multinational Optus, flights, accommodation and tickets to the 2015 women’s tennis final of the Australian Open just days after an Optus-Fujitsu consortium had tendered for a $340 million Gold Coast City Council IT outsourcing contract. Tate duly voted in Council, in July 2015, for the Optus consortium's bid.

When the details emerged, Mayor Tate said it was “insulting” that people could suggest the gift had influenced his vote, stating that he had no role in the tender committee that evaluated the rival bids. On paper, this is true. Nevertheless, other bidder Hewlett-Packard still complained about Tate's self-confessed conflict of interest in January 2016. A subsequent internal Council investigation discovered no probity issues.

Tom Tate is standing for election again in just over two weeks time, with local government elections being held all over the State of Queensland on 19 March 2016. It is for this reason we have decided to look at little more deeply into the dealings of Tom Tate, the Gold Coast's scandal prone developer mayor.

Tom Tate, the Starlight Foundation and the Penfolds Grange 2010

Looking through Tom Tate’s register of interests in January 2016, one entry stood out: the gift of a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage 2010 from the Starlight Foundation.

Why would the Starlight Foundation – a charity dedicated to helping sick children – think it was necessary and appropriate to donate to a provincial mayor a $750 bottle of the same tipple that brought Barry O’Farrell unstuck. Indeed, why, as a charity, were they donating at all? Don't charitable donations usually run in the other direction?

The Starlight Foundation is, without question, a charity that does a lot of good.

Its aim is to “help sick kids” and that it surely does, raising an enormous amount of money to brighten the day of, according to the charity,

'... 185,000 seriously ill children each year.'

It has a host of respected corporate partners and its committees are made up of illustrious bankers, lawyers, business people and, yes, even one or two doctors. It would appear, on the face of it, to be a very popular conduit for wealthy Australians to engage and assist children in need.

But nevertheless, it still wasn’t apparent as to why they would gift a ludicrously expensive bottle of wine to a provincial mayor. So IA emailed the Starlight Foundation to ask.

A spokesperson replied promptly; according to them, no-one from Starlight had gifted Tate any such plonk:

The Starlight Children’s Foundation did not purchase this bottle of wine. We understand Mayor Tate was personally gifted the bottle of wine by an individual at an event where Starlight was the benefiting charity.

It sounded, however, like they knew about this transaction, so I asked for more clarification:

…are you saying that no-one from the Starlight Foundation donated the bottle to Mayor Tate?

The response was uncategorical:

Correct. We understand the wine was given to the Mayor by an individual as a personal gift at an event where Starlight was the benefiting charity.

Strange. Why would Mayor Tate say the Starlight Foundation had given him the wine when it had apparently come from someone unaffiliated with the charity? Perhaps a guest at Starlight’s October 2015 “Star Ball”, held at Jupiter’s Casino, at which Tate was a guest speaker?

Of course, according to pictures on the ‘Star Ball’ Facebook page, there was plenty of wine available when Tate grabbed his Grange.

I don't go to many of these events, so I contacted the mayor’s office, hoping to become more acquainted with habits of the rich and charitable.

Tom Tate and the donor who must not be named

It took a while ‒ a few days ‒ but eventually I received a response from someone whose address block identified him as 'Manager Corporate Communication’ (MCC).

The terse response was exactly as follows:

Response from Mayor Tate office:

“The Mayor’s register of interest has been updated to reflect that the bottle of wine was a gift from a private citizen, not the Starlight Foundation, as initially listed in the register.’’

That’s pretty much what Starlight said, but still I wasn't sure, so I asked

... three more pertinent questions:

  1. Who was this “private citizen”?
  2. Why did the mayor state that the Starlight Foundation was the donor, initially?
  3. Given the error here, can we trust the other entries in the Mayor’s interest’s register to be accurate?

It was here that things took another unexpected turn.

The MCC wanted me to conceal the donor's name [IA emphasis]:

The private citizen's name now appears on the register. Can you kindly consider not publishing that name.

The basis to this is that mr mayor was at a starlight function, and this citizen who is also a major supporter of starlight, gave the mayor the wine. Given the mayor was at the starlight function at the time, he initially thought it appropriate to just register it as being from starlight. Since then, he has amended his register.

In doing this, he has also checked other registered items to ensure they are all accurate. His main concern in all this is that starlight and its good work isn't somehow brought into question. Can you please consider this?

Feel like a bottle of Penfolds Grange 2010? Just $750 from your local bottle-O...

So, “mr mayor” was concerned about Starlight, was he? Not his booze benefactor, or himself?

I wasn’t so sure about that. Especially given the register had not been updated like Mr MCC had claimed.

So I got back in touch with Tate's apparatchik:

The private citizen’s name does not appear on this link at this time: http://www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au/documents/bf/register-interests-mayor-tom-tate.pdf

Can you please just let me know what the name is.

I have to say, your message strikes me as rather odd. I find it most unusual that Mayor Tate would think it more damaging to Starlight to publish the name of a donor to Starlight giving the Mayor a bottle a very expensive bottle of wine at a Starlight function than the children’s charity giving him the wine itself. It would appear to me that if Mayor Tate was so worried about the reputation of Starlight, he wouldn’t have dumped them in the mire by falsely saying they gave him the wine in the first place.

I look forward to you letting me know that name.

MCC replied:

Hi. Apols. It takes 5 days to actually update. Please check first thing Friday and then let me know.

Why the evasion, I asked:

But [MCC], you know the name, so why don’t you just tell me?

But he wouldn’t.

Eventually, the register was updated, revealing the donor to be a Peter Greelish.

Peter Greelish, citizen, and most definitely NOT from Starlight Foundation

Far from just being a ‘private citizen’ or, even a ‘major supporter of Starlight’, Peter Greelish was quite evidently a Starlight Foundation Committee member.

His picture was, indeed, plastered all over the Star Ball Facebook page:

Greelish had helped organise and host this Ball — one of the Starlight Foundation's major fundraising events:

Greelish had also, for some reason handed Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, who had opened the event, an expensive bottle of Grange Hermitage at some stage during the night.

I could see why the Starlight Foundation may have wanted to claim that Greelish was not a part of their family, but that argument did not appear to hold water — or wine, for that matter.

So I got back in touch with the Starlight Foundation to ask why they had claimed Peter Greelish was not associated with them, despite him clearly being a Starlight Committee member:

This was their response [IA emphasis]:

Peter is part of a community fundraising group that supports Starlight, he is not a Starlight Children’s Foundation employee. Community fundraisers like Peter organise events and raise money for Starlight, which helps us connect with more than 185,000 seriously ill children each year. Their work is invaluable to us. No Starlight employee gifted a bottle of wine to Mayor Tate.

We will not be providing any more clarifying statements.

Of course, I had never mentioned mentioned anything about Starlight employees; I had asked, as you'll recall:

… are you saying that no-one from the Starlight Foundation donated the bottle to Mayor Tate?

Clearly, Greelish was associated with Starlight, but if the wine was not from them, why had Greelish decided to personally donate it to Tate? It was time to look further in Peter Greelish.

At time of publication, Peter Greelish was listed by Bloomberg Business, as:

Executive Board Director at ONE Group Retail Project Management and Installation Pty Limited. He was the Joint Managing Director at ONE Group Retail Project Management and Installation Pty Limited since 1999.

The One Group company mentioned was formerly Australia’s largest shopfitting company, with reported revenue of $140 million around five years ago. Regrettably, in February 2013, it went into liquidation and is currently being wound up by receivers Deloitte.

In fact, Peter Greelish ceased being a director of One Group on 24 October 2015. What the company’s creditors might think of One Group's former boss giving the Gold Coast mayor $750 bottles of red can only be speculated upon.

His corporate bio also lists him as a master builder [IA emphasis]:

With over twenty-seven years industry experience Peters holds qualifications as a licenced commercial builder. Peter has also been a member of the Master Builders Association for over ten years.

I asked Greelish the following:

… can you please confirm that you donated this to him privately and not in your capacity at a committee member of the Starlight Foundation? Secondly, if you donated it privately, when did you donate this to Mr Tate? He alleges it was at a Starlight Foundation Ball. Thirdly, if it was at the Ball, why did you choose to give it to him then and not on some other occasion? Fourthly, why did you give Mayor Tate this bottle of wine? It is very expensive and it is notable that you are a master builder.

It took Peter Greelish many days to respond.

When he did, he stated the following:

Sorry for my late reply to your email. I have just returned from holidays. It was a personal gift from me which I purchased personally & nothing to do with starlight. We are a shopfitting company & not a master builder.

So, qualified as a master builder, but not building buildings.

Instead, it looks like Peter Greelish is carrying on his trade at Australasian Retail Projects Pty Ltd, based on the Gold Coast, where he is director and secretary.

I again asked Peter Greelish why he gave Tate the wine. He chose not to respond.

Why would Shopfitting Pete seek to curry favour with the mayor? Or is he just a really generous guy? One who really likes Tom Tate? Or could it be that, with Tom Tate’s "cultural precinct" about to kick off, there is going to be lots of shopfitting work at the Council soon?

Or is it all about something else? I still don’t know. Do you?

The one thing I do know is that no-one I came into contact with during this entire investigation was interested in giving me the full story. In fact, I still don't think any of them have told me all they know about this affair.

Ticking over nicely ... (Click on the image to see the full flier)

The Mayor as Lord

This case highlights the murky nature of political donations. Why do people give them? What do they expect to receive back in return? Is it nothing? Or is it really rather a lot?

And why did Tate, an extremely rich man as well as a politician, placed in a position of trust and privilege, accept this fabulously expensive bottle of Grange Hermitage at a charity ball? If he really did think it was from Starlight Foundation, then why didn’t he just donate it immediately back — for the kids, y' know?

Indeed, why does Tate accept any of these gifts — such as the controversial one from Optus to the Melbourne Open during the IT outsourcing tender. It is clear that he doesn't need these gifts. That he could easily afford them himself. And that simply by accepting them, he opens a Pandora’s Box full of questions concerning his personal integrity and discretion.

Do we want really want politicians who do nothing to dispel the perception that if you come bearing tributes and favours, then perhaps you will receive their patronage and rewards? Like petitioners to a fuedal lord? It may not be quite the way it is, but Mayor Tom Tate does nothing to dispel this perception. One should not only do the right thing, as they say, but one should also be seen to be doing the right thing.

For people voting soon in the Gold Coast elections, may the buyer beware.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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