Police should help any probe, specialists say
Joyce Ng and Olga Wong
Henry Tang Ying-yen and his wife should be criminally investigated, in the light of evidence suggesting they planned their 'underground palace' at a Kowloon Tong house before it was completed in 2007, a legal academic and a building expert say.
If the Buildings Department decided to investigate, it should rope in the police to look for witnesses because buildings officers had limited powers, law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming of the University of Hong Kong said yesterday.
However, prosecution may be difficult unless there are witnesses and written records to prove their case.
The call came a day after the department said it would issue only a non-binding letter to Tang's wife, Lisa Kuo Yu-chi, who owns the house at 7 York Road, advising her to demolish the 2,250 sq ft illegal basement. The department did not mention prosecution.
The couple admitted on Thursday night that they knew the basement was illegal and Kuo was responsible for the project.
Cheung said that judging from what the couple had said, 'there are reasonable grounds for suspicion that somebody has committed a criminal offence'.
Under part 1AA of section 40 of the Buildings Ordinance, the department could, without the need to issue an advisory letter or demolition order, prosecute 'any person who knowingly contravenes' the requirement to obtain approval for beginning construction work. Offenders face a fine of up to HK$400,000 and two years in prison.
'Tang said work on the basement began after the department issued an occupation permit for the house in 2007. This suggests a conclusion that he must have known the basement could not possibly be approved by the department,' said Cheung, who also sits on the 1,200-strong Election Committee that will elect the next chief executive.
If basement work had begun before 2007, he said, there would be grounds to believe the couple and their architects had conspired to defraud the department.
The police said they would monitor the developments closely, but 'it was not convenient for police to intervene' while the Buildings Department was following up on the matter.
The couple's 'self-admission' was enough to trigger an investigation into a more serious offence, a buildings officer familiar with prosecution procedures said, but he saw hurdles ahead. 'It depends on whether construction workers who had leaked the news will testify that the couple had given instructions to build the basement and deliberately omitted it from the building plan for submission [to the department].'
Chan Chi-ming, head of construction at the Institute of Vocational Education, also urged the government to investigate the couple and the architect and engineer involved.
'This is such a huge illegal structure,' Chan said. 'If the Buildings Department doesn't investigate, it is hard to convince the public that it can uphold professional standards.'
He mentioned points that suggested the house had been built to make basement work easy. According to the building plan, the piles in the foundation were bored up to five metres into the ground, compared with only about two metres of piling under the adjacent houses - at 5A York Road, where Tang now lives, and 9 York Road. 'It would also be technically very difficult, after the house was completed, to add concrete walls to make a basement and seam the walls with the foundation using steel bars,' Chan said.
Tang is facing questions as to how he could have been ignorant of the basement plan, given he co-owned the house with Kuo until 2010.
The Institution of Engineers supported an immediate investigation by the authorities. The institution and the Institute of Architects said they would take disciplinary action on any member found to have violated the code of conduct.