Lessons to draw from a very sorry affair
The final chapter in the long and costly legal saga involving former executives of the Allied Group reveals two fundamental truths about Hong Kong's pursuit of suspected commercial criminals.
It shows that the arm of the law can be very long indeed - stretching back far into the past and refusing to release its grip until the accused have been brought to justice. But it also demonstrates that when a penalty is finally imposed, it often amounts to little more than a brush on the knuckles with a feather duster.
Now that the sentences have been passed, and the 12-year drama brought to an end, we are left wondering whether it was really worth putting so much time, money and effort into the pursuit of these two businessmen.
The case, which twice collapsed in embarrassing circumstances because of regrettable problems with the prosecution, has not cast our system of criminal justice in a particularly favourable light.
And all this for what, in the end, amounted to a plea bargain in which admissions were made to the less serious charges and relatively light sentences imposed. Surely there is a better way of tackling commercial crime.
Former chairman of the group Lee Ming Tee might, understandably, feel that the one-year sentence imposed on him yesterday is not especially lenient. His co-accused, Ronald Tse Chu-fai, fared rather better. He was given a suspended sentence last year.
But these convictions and sentences are a poor return for an investigation which has cost many millions and spanned more than a decade.
This was an inquiry into a $680 million fraud allegedly committed in the early 1990s. There was an obvious need for a thorough investigation. Hong Kong's reputation as a financial centre was at stake.
But the way in which this was done left much to be desired.
The trial of Lee and Tse was 'permanently' halted in 2000 by a judge, who hit out at investigators for abusing their powers and violating the defendants' right to a fair trial. The Court of Final Appeal accepted the judge's view of the investigation, but put the case back on track - ruling that a fair trial was still possible.
Then, in 2002, the case was 'permanently' halted again by a different judge. This time it was because the Securities and Futures Commission had failed to disclose its investigation into a key expert witness for the prosecution. It is hard to argue with that judge's observation that a 'perception of unfairness' had been created. But the top court sent the case back for trial a third time. It accepted this would place a 'heavy burden' on Lee, but held the public interest in prosecuting suspected criminals was more important.
The plea bargains which followed suggest that the prosecutorial machine finally ran out of steam. The prosecution saved face by securing convictions, albeit on lesser charges. Another costly trial was avoided, as was the possibility of hugely embarrassing acquittals.
It was right to bring this long saga to an end. But the whole affair has been most unsatisfactory.
The director of public prosecutions says the convictions have sent out the right message. There is something to be said for the idea that Hong Kong always gets its man - and that no matter how long it takes and how much it costs, even rich and powerful offenders will be brought to justice. But the outcome of the case is not likely to have today's commercial criminals quaking in their boots. Compare it to the Enron affair, in which miscreants have been swiftly brought before US courts and given heavy penalties. That is one sure way in which to get the message across.
Only time will tell whether our beefed-up securities laws will prove successful: they are yet to make their presence felt. Hong Kong may or may not need a crusader like New York attorney-general Eliot Spitzer, but we certainly need a more rigorous, effective - and fair - means of combating commercial crime.