Days of reckoning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2006, 12:00am

It all seems like deja vu. In 1993, former Crown prosecutor Kevin Egan walked out of court with his name cleared after a 21/2-year battle against allegations that he lent a disgraced government lawyer a pen gun and helped him flee Hong Kong. At his victory party at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, he confessed: 'I have been a barrister for 20 years and have spent 18 years prosecuting. I finally realised how the poor bugger on the other side feels.'

Thirteen years later, Egan, who has since become one of the most prominent criminal barristers in town, found himself in the dock again. As during the previous trial, he was defended by his good friend and fellow Australian, John McNamara, against his one-time ally, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). On the first day of the three-month trial, the 59-year-old, charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice and disclosing to reporters the identity of a participant in the witness protection programme, returned the same vehement answer - 'not guilty' - to every charge read out to him in a packed courtroom.

Also arrested in the case was Egan's long-term professional colleague and friend, Andrew Lam Ping-cheung, 54, who rose to fame as a criminal solicitor in the early 1990s.

However, the difference this time was that victory was not on their side. On Monday, District Court Chief Judge Barnabas Fung Wah found Egan guilty of two charges of attempting to disclose the identity of a participant in the ICAC's witness protection programme to then South China Morning Post reporter Magdalen Chow Yin-ling in July 2004.

But Egan was acquitted of the more serious offence - conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Lam was convicted of this offence, as was prominent businessman Derek Wong Chong-kwong and Wong's lover, Mandy Chui Man-si. Egan and Lam were also acquitted of a joint count of conspiracy to reveal the identity of the witness. There was no victory party at the FCC this week. The judgement is still being read in court, with a date for sentencing still to be announced.

The verdict and pending sentencing brings to a close one of Hong Kong's most colourful and enduring legal partnerships. During the trial, the pair were frequently referred to as 'thorns in the side' of the ICAC - a term used by their own lawyers and friends, including a former senior government prosecutor.

With their signature robust, relentless style, the duo over the years fought hard and won a large number of cases against the commission that drew headlines.

Both lawyers argued that the ICAC had for years been finding every possible excuse to pursue them. Egan made a tongue-in-cheek comment to the officers as he was being arrested in July 2004: 'This is payback time for all the grief I have caused you in the past.'

A tearful Lam held a press conference to talk about his 'unforgettable' 41 hours in ICAC detention. 'The way they treated me, the way they conducted their inquiry ... this is no more than a vendetta,' he told reporters.

But amid claims by Egan and Lam that they have been targeted over the years by the ICAC, the commission has returned fire, saying it is ridiculous to suggest it would target any individuals because of their background.

Love them or hate them, the pair are among the most colourful characters in the legal community.

Egan was a member of what became known as the Antipodean mafia, a loosely formed group consisting of Australian and New Zealand lawyers known for their good humour and confidence, but also, on some occasions, their arrogance. 'He called himself 'Ego' sometimes,' a lawyer said.

'He is a very clear-thinking chap and a well-respected lawyer, flamboyant and larger than life,' said a barrister who knew Egan and worked on cases with him for years.

Friends also described him as a good sailor, someone who is keen on horses, and who represented Hong Kong as a member of the national shooting team in the Commonwealth Games.

Lam, chairman of the Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society, was outspoken and described as a lawyer who would go out of his way to help journalists. He said he met Egan at a gun club and found that their styles in handling cases were similar.

The two had a prominent - almost daily - presence at their favourite corner in the Foreign Correspondents' Club, where lawyers, businessmen and journalists mixed and exchanged the latest on transaction deals, court scandals and newspaper stories. Long-time staff at the club referred to Egan and Lam as 'the elder brother' and 'the younger brother'. Egan was nominated second vice-president on the board of the FCC this year.

Ironically, the pair both served with the graft-buster at one time. In 1990, Egan was becoming well known in the Legal Department, rising to become its fifth-highest ranking officer. The deputy principal Crown prosecutor helped the ICAC nail many of the biggest criminals in the colonial days, including Shanghai-born textile tycoon Yang Yuan-loong, the kingpin in the biggest race-fixing scandal brought to trial in Hong Kong, and Sun Yee On triad society head Heung Wah-yim. But in August 1990, a day after his departure from the Legal Department to private practice at the Bar, he was caught up in an earth-shattering scandal. The barrister was hit with four charges in relation to allegedly helping corrupt fellow prosecutor Warwick Reid escape by: passing on information about an ICAC investigation into his assets; offering to obtain a shotgun; providing him with a pen gun and ammunition; and providing him with a passport.

Reid, acting director of public prosecution and person-in-charge of the Commercial Crime Unit at the time he was arrested in 1989, was responsible for advising the attorney-general on whether to pursue cases based on evidence supplied by government investigators. He was sentenced to eight years in jail after pleading guilty to amassing a fortune of $12.4 million in bribes by advising his bosses that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. The sentence was eventually reduced to five years after he gave statements that implicated 13 people - including Egan - and led to the convictions of barrister Eddie Soh Chee-kong, and solicitors Oscar Lai Ka-to and Alick Au Shui-yuen.

The story goes that, after his arrest, Reid bumped into his colleague Egan one night at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. He told him of his plan to flee Hong Kong, fearing that he would be prosecuted for possessing assets he could not explain. Egan was alleged to have offered to give the corrupt prosecutor a shotgun for self-defence. Egan was also accused of giving Reid his Australian passport in his flat after the drinking session at the FCC.

But when Egan was tried in 1993, Reid claimed hazy recollection of the night. He also told the court that they were both heavily drunk at that time and he did not believe Egan would be serious about his suggestion to procure a gun. The prosecution alleged Reid watered down and contradicted his earlier testimony. All four charges against Egan were dropped.

But the ramifications of the Reid case for Egan were far-reaching, some in his circle believed. 'He would have been a silk had he come with a squeaky clean record,' said a barrister. 'But having been a defendant himself in one of Hong Kong's major criminal trials does not put him in a good light for that.'

Lam's encounter with the anti-graft body dates back to 1977. Majoring in social work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he was impressed with the mission of the newly established commission. He opted to join it right after graduation.

But he left the ICAC three years later, disillusioned with the approach his seniors adopted to solve crimes. 'I don't want to solve a crime by deploying the dishonest tricks used by those I had the duty to catch,' he said afterwards.

The solicitor said his departure was triggered by a case in which a senior expatriate immigration officer was arrested for taking bribes in return for offering identity cards to illegal immigrants. With the approval of his superior, Lam promised a witness, who was smuggled to Hong Kong from Macau more than 10 years ago, that he would be allowed to stay if he testified against the officer. But the morning after the witness gave his evidence, he was repatriated to Macau - under the orders of Lam's superior. 'I felt so bad, as if I had deliberately lied to the witness to get him to talk. But there was nothing I could do to help him,' he said.

Lam then turned to law as an answer to his unsatisfied quest for justice. After finishing his legal studies in London, he refused to take ICAC cases in his first few years as a solicitor. 'Although I did not agree with their approach, I still felt loyalty towards the commission as a body responsible for catching the bad guys in society,' he said.

But the solicitor's perception changed after his friend Alex Tsui Ka-kit, the man tipped to be the first local to head the anti-graft body, was suddenly sacked by then commissioner Bertrand de Speville in November 1993. The dismissal was shrouded in mystery. Mr Tsui claimed it had to do with a conflict with his seniors, whom he alleged had covered up for a senior expatriate officer who had sexually harassed a female colleague. He hired Lam and Egan to represent him in the Legislative Council hearings on his dismissal, during which he accused the ICAC of bugging politicians, practising racial double standards and political vetting within the organisation.

Mr Tsui's case marked the start of Lam and Egan's partnership and their history of battles with the graft-buster. From then on, the two fought a large number of ICAC cases, with the occasional appearance of Mr Tsui as their adviser.

'I think the ICAC has totally changed from the days I was there. Its original principles are compromised as it has to justify its existence while Hong Kong's crime rate keeps dropping,' Lam said.

The ICAC responded by saying: 'We have never compromised on the principles of upholding justice and carrying out our anti-corruption duties in strict accordance with the laws in all circumstances.'