Film

Government contract scandal becomes history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am

King Henry II of England is famously reported to have said: 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' Four of his loyal supporters, thinking they had caught their master's underlying meaning, then went out and assassinated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Time passed and, as so often happens, the verdicts were reversed. Becket was made a saint, the king had to do penance, and the four underlings were excommunicated by the church. Such is the reward of misplaced loyalty.

It would not be too great a stretch to see a similar chain of events in the award to iProA of a half-share of a contract for which a rival tenderer had submitted a superior bid.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, by his own admission, made some remarks on a previous occasion along the lines that the company, closely affiliated with the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, was a reliable one and could be counted on to deliver a good service. So, when his loyal minions discovered that the board appointed to evaluate the tenders for the Internet Learning Support Programme had concluded that the contract should be awarded to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service because its bid was better, the disappointment among them would have been palpable.

Not surprisingly, some of them apparently hinted that a politically desirable outcome would be for iProA to be involved in the contract. (The attraction, reportedly, was the opportunity for the DAB to turn up at citizens' front doors offering a tangible benefit and thereby securing a political plus.) And so it came to pass.

The whistle on this rather clumsy fix was blown by a somewhat unlikely hero, Jeremy Godfrey, an information technology geek and son of a High Court judge. But one with a sense of humour and, most importantly, a patently honest man.

Political pressure had been brought to bear on the tendering process, he said. He resigned before the end of his contract to protest.

So far the script almost writes itself: offhand remark by King John, misguided enthusiasm by courtiers, termination of principled churchman. But, in between the case coming into the public arena and the hearings in the Legislative Council to discuss it, there was a rather unpleasant episode where certain parties sought to undermine Godfrey's credibility with a smear campaign.

Suddenly, half a dozen or so media outlets were fed a story of a mysterious 'Black Hand' behind Godfrey going public. That person was allegedly coaching him in how to generate maximum negative publicity for the administration.

None of the media outlets which ran the story from this angle bothered to contact either Godfrey or the alleged Black Hand to cross-check it. Which is unfortunate, because there is not a scintilla of truth in it. I am well qualified to comment on the veracity of the story because I was named as the Black Hand. In no way did I coach Godfrey on what to do, as he himself confirmed later.

When Godfrey duly told his story to the Legco panel on IT and broadcasting, he stuck to his guns. And he was eminently believable. Two other senior civil servants gave at least some backing to parts of his version.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear roughly what had gone on. The four DAB panel members voted not to do anything about the episode so it has dropped off the radar screen. No doubt, memories will soon fade, though, in due course, iProA can expect to come under considerable scrutiny when it actually implements its share of the contract.

Left hanging is the question of who in the government authorised the propaganda assault on Godfrey.

Neither Godfrey nor myself are likely to be candidates for canonisation. But the top man should be doing penance. And some of the courtiers should be taken behind the woodshed for a severe spanking.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk