Saturday 24th of February 2024

Magical Pills, Mysterious Deals, Mobsters And Our Money

Craig Rowley and I wrote this piece for Webdiary last week- that was before the Halliburton connection was announced. Get this under your belt and I'll be back with the rest soon:

Gerard Ryle, an award winning investigative journo currently working for the SMH, has been breaking a most intriguing story about the rise of a man with a magic mystery pill, how he and his little fuel booster firm, Firepower, shoots for the stars and the way Austrade doles out our money to the pill man's secretive firm.

The Austrade connection and the fact they had until today celebrated Firepower as a success story on their website is all the more interesting given the Firepower-AWB inquiry link. And there's more in the story to makes you wonder what Downer’s DFAT really does these days.

There are links to trouble with the Russian Mob and relationships with Grigory Luchansky - the man whom successfully sued The Times of London for calling him "the most dangerous non-convicted person in the world" when making allegations of his involvement in money laundering and trade in nuclear material amongst other crimes.

With all these elements we have to agree with Michael Pascoe writing for Crikey:

"…why does this seem to be such a non story to some media outlets? Here’s a dubious-looking outfit (it’s actually not a company in Australia in the usual meaning of the word) that’s become remarkably high-profile by emerging almost overnight as one of the nation’s biggest sponsors of sport, that’s enlisting various jocks to spruik its unproven products, that’s picked up nearly $400,000 from the tax payer, that claims the support of a state premier and a prime minister – and it’s largely unreported. "

So today we set out the basics of this story for all those Webdiary readers who want to play catch up and try to make some sense out of the machinations of the men with the magic mystery pill.

As far as we can make out the story begins in June 1999, when Perth businessman Tim Johnston, believing he has something to sell that will make him a big star of the business world, sends off the forms to ASIC to register a company – Bigstar Nominees Pty Ltd.

A couple of years and name changes later, Johnston’s companies are trading as TLC Engine Care System Pty Ltd and TPS Group Pty Ltd. Johnston jets off to one of the lands of big opportunity in 2001 and from an Indian industry news outlet we learn that what he had to sell was a magic pill - the PowerMax pill - described as being to your vehicle what Viagra is to mankind:

"PowerMax, the brown pill to enter the pollution control equipment market, enhances the performance of your engine and keeps the fuel going for many an extra mile. And like the blue wonderdrug that revolutionised male healthcare across the world, PowerMax promises a major breakthrough to a cheaper, cleaner transport system and thus a purer world. "

Mysteriously, given the claimed potency of the PowerMax product, Tim Johnston and his team don’t seem to make the most of their "major breakthrough" for the first few years of the naughties. You'd expect they would've, particularly given that PowerMax was, at least according to Tim Johnston and TLC, developed in Australia "with the assistance of the Shell Motoring Company". But you'll find there’s not much news out there about PowerMax bringing about a "purer world" as promised. No news, in fact.

However, fast forward a few years and we find TLC Engine Care System Pty Ltd has had a makeover. Tim Johnston's little Perth-based start-up has metamorphosed into Firepower Oceania Pty Ltd, just one part of the Virgin Islands registered Firepower Group.

The PowerMax pill is now the Firepower pill (though strangely the company in its current manifestation doesn't refer to PowerMax or the assistance from Shell in its development on its information-lite website) and in September 2005, Tim Johnston, as chairman and CEO of Firepower Group, turns up in Pakistan at a meeting with the Minister for Environment, Major (Ret) Tahir Iqbal. That meeting must have gone well. Iqbal announces that Firepower Group intends to invest US$35 million over a period of 5-7 years in a manufacturing and blending facility in Pakistan. Through this facility, a 'Petroleum additive' or 'Fuel Conditioner' which is being "successfully utilised in 53 countries worldwide" would be introduced in Pakistan as well, Iqbal said. [Whoever can find that Firepower funded facility in Pakistan first wins a prize, and while you’re searching for it please see if you can turn up OBL’s hidey hole 'cause that's worth a bit too.]

From the reports of Pakistani investment we learn that for some reason Firepower can sell a heap of its magical product (in 53 countries worldwide) but you can't find that product in most parts of our own. The magic pills are sold domestically in only a few dozen outlets in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, plus a marine supply shop in Hobart. It's peculiar that despite the Firepower logos worn by the Rabbitohs not one shop in NSW stocks their stuff. And Tonga's rugby squad will travel to England and (hopefully) France to compete in this year's Rugby World Cup emblazoned with the Firepower logo, but is there an outlet selling the magic pills in Tonga? Nup.

Actually, you have to wonder how much of Firepower's stuff is sold internationally at all. They proudly claim the handful of little Aussie distribution outlets, but list none in overseas locations. And when their CEO spoke to the media yesterday he said, "What you are failing to understand is that whilst Australia is an important market for us, 99 per cent of our business will be done overseas." Will be done? Does that mean it's more of a statement of intended future business than a description of the business they've been doing?

And if you think that's all a bit strange then consider another Firepower claim, relayed by the Pakistani Environment Minister, that the magic pill has "enormous benefits" including the ability to reduce harmful exhaust emission by up to 70 percent and that the magic pill "has already been extensively tested and is being by used by industry, power, railways, agriculture sector world wide and in the armed forces of Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Thailand and Indonesia". It’s a strange thing because the ADF and our Department of Defence deny ever buying the Firepower pill, but we’ll come back to this a little later.

First let’s look at how fantastic business was for Firepower last year, a very successful year for the firm according to (and thanks to) Austrade. Firepower did a big deal or two in Russia. First it signed a multimillion deal with the Russia's largest coal producer, Kuzbassrazrezugol. Then, as revealed at the Australia Week in Moscow trade show, it signed a joint venture with the aforementioned Grigory Luchansky.

Indeed business with Kuzbassrazrezugol, owned by the mega-rich Iskander Makhmudov and Andrei Bokarev, was so good for Firepower last year that Tim Johnston received death threats. These death threats, suspected of coming from one band of Bratva or other, may or may not have been motivated by anything to do with connections between Makhmudov, Bokarev and Boris Yeltsin’s "Family", but one thing we do know is that they motivated the Australian embassy in Moscow to organise four bodyguards from Russia's special forces unit to accompany Mr Johnston during the trade show.

Personal protection wasn’t the only help provided to Tim Johnston and his successful Firepower firm by Austrade. As reported by Gerard Ryle, one of the deals set up through Austrade was to have a Firepower product – a fuel system cleaning machine - manufactured in Romania under an arrangement with British arms dealer, BAE Systems. With respect to this deal Ryle writes that:

"The Herald understands that BAE Systems assisted in the manufacture of the machines to satisfy what is known as an ‘offset agreement’ with the Romanian Government. Offset agreements are common practice in large international arms deals. They require a supplier to direct some benefits - usually work or technology - back to the purchaser as a condition of the sale. While the Herald does not suggest that the deal involving Firepower's products was anything other than a normal business transaction, allegations concerning some of BAE Systems' dealings in Romania and four other countries are being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in Britain. The company did not respond to a Herald request for comment. "

Given the description of these arrangements as normal business transactions you may wonder how many other ‘offset agreements’ Austrade assists, but that is just one of many things to ponder as the Firepower story unfolds.

Yesterday the man Firepower appointed as its new CEO (a nice coincidence that followed his timely departure from Austrade) could not produce any results proving the ‘enormous benefits’ other than mentioning how much more mileage he makes in his Maserati. As Michael West reports, John Finnin was "unable to furnish any proof of Firepower's technology, any scientific work or even put on show the revolutionary pill itself".

One of the most bizarre aspects of Finnin's response to questions about Firepower's remarkable product was his revealing that it hasn't been patented. Finnin says that the pill contains intellectual property rights "we are simply not willing to divulge." You have to wonder if Firepower is being a bit overcautious about chemical analysis. Finnin says the Firepower product is like Coca-Cola. Maybe it is Coca-Cola?

And Finnin has other, more interesting, questions to face. As Mark Hawthorne reports in The Age today: "No matter which way John Finnin turns, the former Austrade deputy consul-general is in the firing line." You see Finnin is named in a document provided to the Cole inquiry, which revealed that, in his role as Austrade's director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he met the owners of the ‘Jordanian’ (read Iraqi) trucking company Alia in September 2003.

But putting aside Finnin’s pre-Firepower activities a list of questions about this business compete for focus.

First, what's with this magic product? Why does it seem they sell it everywhere but here? Why is it not patented?

Where does Firepower really get its money from? We know it got nearly $400,000 in “export grants” from us, the taxpayers, but where does it get the millions it can pour into sports team sponsorships here and its various overseas projects like the $35 million Pakistani manufacturing plant? Is it all from the deal with one of Russia's richest?

Where does Firepower’s money go? We know it isn’t going into scientific testing to prove the power of its the magical pill and other products, we know some of it goes back to Austrade in sponsorship, and we know some of it is now being splashed around on sports teams, but what about the rest? Who are the investors?

And the biggest question of all: What does the future hold for Firepower, its magic pills and mysterious deals, and will our money be used again to support it?


Next stop, Romania.