'I will appeal ... I am innocent'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am


Lily Chiang Lai-lei was ready to talk two days before she was found guilty of fraud.

The former chairwoman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce had agreed to meet at 5pm on Tuesday to continue a conversation about the career that made her one of the city's most prominent businesswomen - before clouds began to gather nine years ago.

Ten minutes before the appointment she had to call it off. 'Sorry I cannot come as the court cancelled my bail,' the text message read. A call to her mobile phone found that it was already disconnected.

It was a clear and concise omen of the judgment that awaited her.

Chiang had already told the South China Morning Post she was prepared for the worst and planned to spend her time in prison in a meaningful way. 'I will treat it as a long break and I would like to help other female inmates,' she said. 'I can teach them English. But more importantly, I would like to teach them how to take care of themselves better.'

Although Chiang plans an appeal, she said she would not seek bail while it was heard; she wants to start her sentence and get it over with.

'Of course I will appeal because I am innocent,' she said. 'But I will not apply for bail ... I don't want this case to drag on in my life any longer.'

Chiang, 50, said her life had not been easy since 2002, when she was first investigated by the Securities and Futures Commission over a series of transactions related to brokerage firm Pacific Challenge Holdings. When the SFC was done five years later, the Independent Commission Against Corruption took over. She has spent more than HK$15 million in legal fees.

But she still sees a bright side. 'Sometimes when you lose something you actually win something back,' she said. 'I have slowed down a lot in my work over the past years because of this case and this means I have had more time to have babies. I would not have four lovely children without this case, and I would not trade them even for getting free from this trial.'

Chiang gave birth to her youngest daughter in 2009 when she was on bail during the ICAC case.

She said the court case had made her a more cautious businesswoman - which helped her weather the financial crisis in 2008.

'I got through the financial tsunami a lot better than many others,' she said. 'My company, Eco-Tek Holdings, cut down its debt level a lot because of this case, even though I was not involved in its operation and all my shares had already been donated to a charitable trust fund.'

To pay legal fees, she sold two flats, which she had bought when the market bottomed during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. She sold before the financial crisis broke and destroyed the market again.

'After I was elected as the chairman of the General Chamber of Commerce, bankers came to me every day with all sorts of investment plans. I was very cautious because of the trial and I did not join any of these accumulator investment plans,' she said, joking: 'So nobody killed me later.' The high-risk investment plans were nicknamed 'I kill you later' when they collapsed during the 2008 crisis.

Chiang said she was relieved in July 2007, two months after she took the helm at the chamber, when the SFC dropped her case. 'I thought it was finally behind me, but then my case was passed to the ICAC,' Chiang said. 'There are many people who do not like a woman to be at the top of a big chamber. And yes, I had enemies.'

When Chiang was elected, many observers expected the Liberal Party member to take one more step and run in the Legislative Council election in 2008. This raised eyebrows, as her sister Ann Chiang Lai-wan is a vice-chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Several senior members of the chamber said people had talked about whether the SFC investigation would have any impact on her image and the chamber's. Former chairman David Eldon wrote in his blog after Chiang's arrest, that she was 'not universally popular'.

After being charged by the ICAC in January 2008, Chiang stepped down as the chamber's chairwoman and launched a series of judicial reviews and appeals, all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, to have her case heard by a jury. This delayed the case for more than two years.

'I am sure I would have won this case if the trial had been held in the High Court with a jury,' she said. 'The jurors would naturally have asked how come a successful businesswoman would make such an effort to cheat over just a few million dollars. This did not make sense.'

Chiang said she did not pocket money by instructing her staff to hold share options or shares of Pacific Challenge and Eco-Tek on her behalf.

'I genuinely wanted to reward my staff,' Chiang said. 'The prosecution kept saying it doesn't make sense to give away so many stock options to junior staff. But I asked: 'Why not?'

Chiang said she did her best to defend herself. 'At least my lawyer told me that I did well in the courtroom.

'I will face the verdict peacefully.'