Disgraced Energy Watch founder Ben Polis speaks: I’m broke and they’re out to get me

Ben Polis, the disgraced founder and former chief executive of Energy Watch, claims he is the victim of a vendetta by energy retailers, disgruntled former employees and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

A dishevelled looking and erratic Polis gave an in-depth interview to SmartCompany last night to set out his side of the story before Justice Shane Marshall, of the Federal Court announced penalties against Energy Watch and Polis in Melbourne today.

The Federal Court has today fined Energy Watch $1.95 million, even though it is in liquidation and unlikely to be paid.

Ben Polis has been fined $65,000.

Energy Watch has been ordered to pay 90% of the legal costs of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which bought the case against the utilities broker. Polis must pay 10%.

The ACCC case

Polis concedes that Energy Watch did use misleading advertising but says the energy broker did not intend to mislead customers.

“There was never any intention to mislead consumers, we never had to as our electricity rates that I had negotiated were so cheap that 200,000 people bought them.

“We said we compared energy providers and we got in trouble because we only had five energy providers and we did not compare all energy providers.

“When we changed our advertising to say ‘We don’t compare all energy providers’, the business did not change at all.

“We changed [the advertising] to ‘Check and Save’ and that’s why I put myself on billboards in my underpants, because I said ‘We’ve got nothing to hide’ because we were being accused of ripping people off.”

Polis claims energy retailers tried to “destroy” Energy Watch by reporting the broker to the Energy Council, the Essential Services Commission and the ACCC.

“You rang Energy Watch and you got a good deal on your power. So who really was pissed off about Energy Watch?” he says.

“The energy retailers hated us because they did not know how to counteract this brand, so they tried to destroy the brand and say it was not credible.

“As I said in court, why would I go and get contracts with 15 companies if they were not prepared to have cheaper electricity rates, it’s not financially viable.

“We worked with providers who were prepared to lower their rates and the consumers won in every state we worked in.”

Polis points to Energy Watch’s role in lowering energy prices, he says the company drove down the price of power in NSW by 12% in less than six months, while, in Victoria, he says the biggest discount used to be 12% and he dropped it to 20% with a $50 credit.

Polis says the size of the fine sought by the ACCC is disproportionate, given the size of Energy Watch and the loss caused.

“The ACCC wants to fine Energy Watch $1.96 million. Now this is a company turning over $17 million which provided a free service, no one paid for anything. So how was anyone actually financially harmed?

“They fine Optus $3 million, TPG $2 million and Apple $2.3 million and they are all billion dollar companies.

“The ACCC sent Energy Watch broke. Their intention behind all this is that they wanted to regulate an industry of energy broking which I invented; I was the first person to start it.”

Polis claims he was not actually chief executive of Energy Watch when the series of misleading radio, television, print and billboard advertisements were published.

“I was not running the business from January 2011 to November 2011. I appointed a general manger, Andrew Barton, and Luke Zombor to run the business, I was told to stay at home and all I did was do the marketing,” he says.

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