Rent-row minister refuses to explain
Joyce Ng and Tony Cheung
Secretary for Development Mak Chai-kwong yesterday reneged on his promise to explain reports that he abused a civil service rent-reimbursement system, saying a potential investigation into the matter prevented him from sharing details.
The newly installed minister had said just three days ago that he would respond to revelations that he and another bureaucrat 'cross-leased' flats to each other in the mid-1980s while both claimed a government rent allowance.
But Mak said he had to reconsider after learning that Democratic Party member Josephine Chan Shu-ying had lodged a complaint with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
'I said on Sunday that I would make a response as soon as possible, but I learnt from the newspapers that some members of the public have lodged a complaint,' Mak told the media. 'In this circumstance, I feel it's not appropriate for me to give a detailed statement.'
It was unclear if the ICAC had opened a formal investigation, as the agency said it would not comment on specific cases. Chan said the commission had asked her to make a statement in relation to her complaint, but Mak would not say whether the ICAC had approached him directly.
Lawmakers, including lawyer Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee of the Civic Party, rejected Mak's reason for remaining silent.
'If the ICAC is investigating into something, you must not disclose the details of the probe, such as whether an investigator has contacted you or not,' Ng said. 'But for the incident itself, it is up to you whether to disclose or not and how much.'
Democrat Lee Wing-tat agreed that Mak needed to provide a better explanation. 'A minister has a political responsibility to tell the public the truth,' he said.
But legislator Ip Kwok-him, from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said that Mak's caution was reasonable, since any disclosure would inevitably affect a criminal inquiry.
The cross-leasing scandal is one of several controversies that have dogged the administration of Leung Chun-ying since he took over as chief executive on July 1.
The issue arose after the Apple Daily reported last week that Mak and Tsang King-man, who is now assistant highways director, had bought and then leased to each other flats on adjacent floors in City Garden, North Point, in 1986, while they both collected the rent allowance.
Mak denied breaking any rules, but the scandal has deepened as new evidence emerges.
A power-of-attorney authorisation for Mak's flat and sale agreements for Tsang's showed that each man acted as 'lawful attorney' to the other when they sold their flats in the 1990s.
That means each was authorised to sell the other man's flat for any price he thought fit and to accept compensation payable to the owner, among other rights.
Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun, a lawyer, found the arrangement unusual, saying there were grounds to suspect Tsang's flat was actually owned by Mak, because a tenant would not normally have a right to determine the sale price.