TWO-time former ACT Business Woman of the Year, Louise Curtis, has gone from success to rock bottom in the space of about four years, the victim of what she calls, a “fake” investigation by Access Canberra.
Now, determined to clear her name, the owner of the franchise Lollypotz is reporting Access Canberra to the ACT Integrity Commission, saying its incompetence has destroyed her life.
Her downfall began at the end of 2015 when she bought a business in need of a lot of “tender, love and care” – Pink Frosting.
“It had a lot of problems,” says Louise about the wedding and party supplies business, but she was up for the challenge to turn it around.
And she says she did.
“When I bought the business, I paid hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of refunds out of my own pocket for the previous owners,” she says.
The business had about 2000 outstanding orders and $180,000 worth of refunds, which she says she paid, despite an undisclosed further 800 outstanding orders, bringing the personal cost to $320,000.
At the time, Louise says Fair Trading NSW was working with the business to resolve ongoing issues but all issues were resolved by February, 2016.
Things turned south for Louise in late November, 2017, when she says, a storm caused roof damage to the company’s Fyshwick-based factory, which led to 10 days of lost business and more than a month of not being able to fulfil orders.
Louise says she was in constant contact with Fair Trading NSW and Access Canberra over this period.
“We couldn’t operate the business. It was about four to six weeks where we couldn’t get orders out,” she says.
By September, 2018, the business had moved into a new location, there was a court case with her former landlord and, she says, the business was still recovering from the storm saga.
“I engaged with Access Canberra; I actually rang them and said this is what has happened,” she says.
But things got worse during the court case and Louise says Pink Frosting started receiving fake reviews on productreview.com.au and accuses the website of taking down many of the five-star reviews.
“At this stage I’m writing to Access Canberra, saying: ‘Guys, can you please help me with this fake-review issue, it is a really big problem for me and I don’t know what to do about it’.”
While Louise admits the company wasn’t perfect and that mistakes were made, she says she did everything to overcome complaints.
In late 2018, Louise contacted productreview.com.au threatening legal action. She says the website stopped replying and instead tipped off a News Limited reporter, who went on to write multiple stories about her.
“It was devastating,” she says.
“I’ve been an open book with Access Canberra [and] they will confirm I am not dodgy,” she says she told the journalist.
“Next thing you know; the most devastating blow to my entire life. They give a statement saying that they’re investigating me. I didn’t even know that until the article came out.”
Following the article, which was published in mid-January last year, Louise wrote five emails, seen by “CityNews”, to Access Canberra asking it to disclose what it was investigating.
On February 15, 2019, Louise says she received a “show cause” letter from Access Canberra referring to nine orders from across Australia that didn’t reflect any current or new complaints, over a period of time when she says the company issued 25,000 orders.
“All matters, bar one, had been dealt with many months and years prior,” she says.
“The letter was clearly an arse-covering attempt to try and cover the issue that Access Canberra should not have given that statement to News Limited.”
Louise says some of the complaints were three years old, with some going back five years before she owned the business.
“They had nothing,” she says.
“CityNews” contacted Access Canberra asking why the directorate avoided meeting Louise when she was coming to them for help regarding the “fake reviews”, if there was an investigation at the time they released a statement to a News Limited reporter, and on what grounds and with what evidence did they send a show-cause letter to Louise? An ACT government spokesperson refused to directly answer the questions and instead said they could not comment out of respect to Louise’s privacy.
According to the Access Canberra website, it states that after complaints are made, Access Canberra will make initial contact with the business and will strive to resolve non-regulatory complaints within 10 days, with complex complaints resolved within 20.
However, Louise says she never was given the opportunity to discuss the alleged complaints with Access Canberra, and Access Canberra did not respond to questions from “CityNews” asking why they hadn’t followed the directorates own protocol.
Instead, when Louise raised her concerns with Access Canberra she received an email back from a spokesman saying they’ll get back to her “in due course”.
Louise didn’t hear back from him, but on multiple occasions in 2019 Access Canberra sent emails to different media outlets, seen by “CityNews” under Freedom of Information, stating that: “Access Canberra can confirm that there is an investigation underway into Pink Frosting.”
But then, on November 7, a Canberra-based reporter, received an email from Access Canberra, which has been obtained by “CityNews”, saying: “Access Canberra never used the phrase ‘formal investigation’ as was reported in the ‘Daily Telegraph’.”
Instead, Access Canberra said it had been in contact with Louise to notify her of an increase in complaints, and “to inform her that the complaints would be [the] subject of further review”.
“During all of this time Access Canberra has continued to give statements saying I’m under investigation, and I have heard diddly squat from them – I haven’t seen an order, or a complaint, nothing,” she says.
“They put me through two years of hell and then have said that I’m not under formal investigation, but said everywhere that I am under investigation, what is the difference?”
“CityNews” asked Access Canberra what the difference is between an investigation and a formal investigation, however, they refused to answer that question, too.
“There was no formal investigation. It’s ruined my life and cost the entire business. I have four online articles stating I’m a thief. I have never, ever seen one complaint, one document, one anything from anybody at Access Canberra,” Louise says.
“I’ve had photographers outside my house three times, I’ve been followed twice; we got to school one morning and my kids were being photographed as they got out of the car.
“I had to call the police one day because photographers camped outside of my office.”
It’s been a tough few years for Louise and her family, but she says it was the comments from Access Canberra that destroyed her.
“I can’t walk into my local shops, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t do anything, I can’t go out to a restaurant,” she says.
“My whole reputation is being trashed and not once through this entire two years has anybody produced a problem to me or produced any evidence whatsoever.”
At the end of last year, Louise decided to sell the business after a local media outlet printed an article about her, saying she was under investigation by Access Canberra.
“I thought: ‘I’m not going to survive through this’,” she says.
“The trolling was so bad that I had to sell the business so I started marketing it to competitors.
“I wrote to Access Canberra in January saying I’d sold the business, and there was still no investigation.
“Settlement was delayed for a number of reasons, but because it was delayed, they started to accuse me of making up the sale.”
By the end of February the business was no longer operating and Louise says she ran into Consumer Affairs Minister Shane Rattenbury at a mutual friend’s event and told him she was going to sue Access Canberra.
“After I tell Shane I’m suing, Access Canberra appoints an ACT government senior counsel to deal with this,” she says.
“Then, on March 30, this year, 14 months after they’ve given the first statement, five months after they are on notice of being sued and two months after the business is sold, they start the investigation.
“[They] then send me a Section 52 notice that doesn’t list any problems or any complaints, instead it asks me to tell them how many complaints I’ve had for the last three years and to detail them.
“When you look at the investigation document, it is just appalling. They had nothing. They had nothing on me at all so they sent this thing asking me to tell them.”
When asked by “CityNews” why Access Canberra began an “official investigation” after the business was sold, a spokesperson said: “Access Canberra conducted an investigation into Pink Frosting, in response to concerns raised by consumers about the company’s conduct under the Australian Consumer Law. The investigation ceased following the deregistration of the business name.”
On August 10, Louise received a letter saying that Pink Frosting had breached the consumer law, based on terms and conditions of the previous owner.
Then, on August 20, following a question on notice, Mr Rattenbury told the Legislative Assembly: “I am advised by Access Canberra that it has concluded investigations of Pink Frosting… evidence obtained by Access Canberra indicates that Pink Frosting is likely to have breached Australian consumer law…”
He went on to say that Access Canberra received 53 complaints about Pink Frosting since 2017 but would not provide the complaints to Louise.
“Where are the 53 complaints?” Louise says.
“They do not have any complaints, they’ve never had any complaints, I’ve never been under investigation but they’ve been on notice that they were going to be sued so they have made this entire false investigation to cover their arse.”
A NSW Fair Trading spokesman said they haven’t investigated Pink Frosting, trading under 86 Candles Pty Limited, as it’s an ACT-based company.
“Historically it looks like Access Canberra has investigated, but we can’t see if there’s been an outcome,” he says.
The spokesman also pointed “CityNews” to its complaints register, which lists companies if they have more than 10 complaints every month, but Pink Frosting is not on it and, Louise says, has never been on it because complaints were always resolved.