Kuk chief let off for violating Legco rules

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am
 

The Legislative Council yesterday decided against punishing political bigwig Lau Wong-fat despite finding he had breached a house rule requiring members to declare their personal interests.

The lawmaking body said Lau - who sits on both the Legislative and the Executive Councils - had 'fallen short of public expectations of a lawmaker', according to a report released yesterday by a seven-member Legco committee investigating the powerful Heung Yee Kuk chairman.

But the report ruled against taking any action to punish Lau, apart from referring complaints against him to Exco for its own consideration.

Legco received 68 complaints against Lau after media reported that he had failed to disclose his stakes in many land and commercial projects. Lau later disclosed his stakes in four companies that he had not declared to Legco. He also added 390 plots of lands to his property-registration list submitted to Exco.

Lau refused to meet the Legco committee investigating him, only sending them a letter and saying that the omission was an unintentional oversight - an explanation which the committee accepted.

Paul Chan Mo-po, who chaired the investigation, said the committee decided against imposing any sanctions against Lau after taking into account the absence of previous cases and any evidence showing he had deliberately concealed the information.

Exco said last night said it had conducted a 'detailed examination and analysis' into Lau's failure to declare his interests but concluded that his conduct 'did not constitute direct conflict of interests'. It also said there was no evidence to suggest Lau had used confidential information obtained from Exco for personal gain.

Although he has been let off the hook, the case has again exposed flaws in the system. On paper, Hong Kong has a registration system that requires officials and politicians to declare their directorships, properties and donations. Exco members are even required to declare any club memberships they hold. The system was designed to avoid conflict of interests - a real and legitimate concern as many owners of big businesses also sit on Legco or Exco.

In reality, there is no clear definition of what a conflict of interest is and when it can be punished. Legco, Exco and other statutory bodies all have their own ways of policing themselves.

The ambiguity of the declaration rules made it easy for politicians to skip these requirements and difficult for the body to punish members who fail to comply. Members of the public are often left in dark as to how authorities such as Exco deal with the problem.

The Exco guidelines say that where a conflict of interest exists, the chief executive can tell a member to recuse him- or herself from a meeting. In 2009, Exco held 35 meetings in which 188 items were discussed. In 28 instances one of the 30 members had to withdraw because of a conflict. But that is the only information made available to the public.

'Few people bother to ask questions about Exco. It's like pulling teeth - they're very reluctant to give any information,' said Democratic Party leader Emily Lau Wai-hing.

Legco has its fair share of problems as well. Lawmakers who sit on corporate boards are required to disclose the nature of their businesses to the public. But 38 per cent of them have failed to do so. Generally, the requirement for Legco members to declare their properties is less strict than for Exco members. For instance, Lau Wong-fat declared fewer properties to Legco than he did to Exco, even after the media reported on his interests.

While he repeatedly amended his Exco disclosures since the scandal surfaced, his Legco property declarations have remained unchanged since 2008. The 706 properties he had declared and described in ample detail to Exco are simply listed in Legco as 'properties in Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China'.

Lau Kong-wah - the only other member of both councils - does not include declarations he made to Exco, including his Hong Kong Jockey Club membership, in his Legco declarations.

Asked why the degree of detail differed, Emily Lau pointed to the cabinet's access to secret, highly sensitive information. 'Here,' she said, laughing in reference to Legco, 'everything we know is public information. We don't have access to confidential information at all.'

Sophie Leung Lau Yau-fun, chairman of Legco's Committee of Members' Interests, said that should not make a difference. 'We are supposed to do our own policing at the very roots,' she said. 'The underlying understanding among all is that parliamentarians are supposed to be honourable. You have to be on your own honour.'

Legco's conflict-of-interest mechanism occasionally punishes those who cross the line.

The only lawmaker punished since the handover has been James To Kun-sun, who in 2005 failed to declare his shareholding in Target Link. A motion for admonishment was proposed and members (including To himself) voted for it in large numbers.

To was considered 'admonished', but aside from that, nothing else happened. A motion by Lau Kong-wah to change the name of the punishment to a 'reprimand' was voted down.

In wake of the Lau Wong-fat scandal, the committee responsible for investigating him has asked the Legco Secretariat to study foreign examples to see if they should tighten up the disclosure requirement.

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