Raids in PCCW probe may have come too late
Doubts have been cast on whether the timing of police raids at the home and offices of parties involved in the failed privatisation of telecommunications giant PCCW will shed light on any corporate wrongdoing.
'If they were looking for evidence, they're about a year too late,' said shareholder rights activist David Webb yesterday.
Still, Webb - who blew the whistle a year ago on the manipulation of a shareholders' vote to privatise the company - said the raids may just have been a formality, and an indication police already have enough evidence.
Officers from the commercial crime bureau last week executed a search warrant at the home of PCCW chairman Richard Li Tzar-kai, son of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing. That followed earlier police inquiries at the offices of Fortis Insurance (Asia). They were part of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding last year's unsuccessful bid to take PCCW private for HK$15.93 billion.
The Richard Li-controlled Pacific Century Regional Developments (PCRD) and China Unicom Group, the majority shareholders of PCCW, offered to buy all the shares they did not own at HK$4.50 each. Minority shareholders approved the offer.
The Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) stepped in after Webb alleged abnormal share transfers.
In April the High Court approved the deal but the SFC, which argued the shareholders' vote had been rigged, successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The SFC claimed Fortis' regional director, Lam Hau-wah, had bought 500,000 PCCW shares and distributed them to more than 400 Fortis agents and their friends as bonuses after phone conversations with PCRD deputy chairman Francis Yuen Tin-fan. The regulator alleged Lam's move was aimed at boosting the number of votes in favour of the privatisation.
The Court of Appeal ruled the privatisation vote was 'clear manipulation' and had hurt the interests of minority shareholders. Mr Justice Anthony Rogers wrote in its judgment: 'Vote manipulation is nothing less than a form of dishonesty. The court cannot sanction dishonesty.'
Yesterday legislator Albert Ho Chun-yan said: 'The court's observation certainly warranted an investigation into the conduct of the various parties.'
A police spokesman said: 'We do not comment on individual cases.'
Martin Rogers, head of litigation for Asia at international law firm Clifford Chance, who is acting for Li in connection with the investigation relating to the privatisation, said: 'We do not believe Richard Li is the target of any investigation or that any senior management of PCRD or PCCW has committed any wrongdoing.'
The search of Richard Li's home is not without precedent - police have, over the years, sought evidence of corporate malfeasance at the dwellings of some of the city's most high-profile and powerful businessmen - but last week's exercise was one of the most discreet. It is not even known which of Li's two homes - his luxury mansion in Shek O or his house on The Peak - was searched.
In comparison, a police raid in April on the offices of Beijing-backed conglomerate Citic Pacific, following its late disclosure of losses from soured foreign-currency bets, was highly publicised. Officers from the commercial crime bureau went to company headquarters in Central and carted away boxes of material. Company directors were asked to provide information about the circumstances under which it racked up huge losses on the complex foreign-exchange transactions, which Citic Pacific said were executed without proper authorisation from its board of directors. The raid was connected with alleged false statements by company directors and/or conspiracy to defraud, Citic said.
Possibly the boldest show of force by investigators occurred in December 1993, when more than 200 police officers and a small army of accountants raided dozens of prime business offices and homes throughout Hong Kong in relation to alleged irregularities in the 1990 takeover by Tomson Pacific of the World Trade Centre Group. The Repulse Bay home of casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun and the home of Taiwanese business magnate David Tong Cun-lin, the managing director of Tomson Pacific, were among those visited.
Tong and four others were later cleared of fraud charges.
Ringing it up
Richard Li and partner China Unicom were playing for high stakes
The value of the privatisation deal approved, but then struck down by appeal judges, was: $15.9b