Why do some civil servants get an easy ride from the law? | South China Morning Post
  • Tue
  • Mar 3, 2015
  • Updated: 5:03am
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 3:00am

Why do some civil servants get an easy ride from the law?

BIO

Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.
 

We were surprised at the relatively lenient sentences handed out to the two civil servants - former development secretary Mak Chai-kwong and an assistant director of highways, Tsang King-man - who were found guilty of defrauding the government of HK$700,000 in housing benefits, and also of conspiracy to defraud. They were given jail sentences of eight months suspended for two years and ordered to repay the HK$700,000.

In passing sentence, the judge, Johnny Chan, noted that if they had simply cross-rented their flats, it would not have been illegal, and described the gravity of the offences as on the low side. He decided to impose suspended sentences after taking into account the men's previous contributions to society. Call us old-fashioned but we cannot see how it can be the case that it would have been OK to have cross-rented the properties. In doing this they were able to secure a housing allowance to which they were not entitled. It was certainly not the intention that the civil servants get a rental allowance while paying a mortgage. And for people to say the case has been overblown because a lot of civil servants were playing that game then is nonsense. Fraud is fraud.

When we are done for illegal parking, it is no defence to say that everyone else does it. That aside, the two have been found guilty of defrauding the government of HK$700,000. Compare their sentence with that of the 80-year-old woman who was given a three-month suspended jail sentence for fraudulently obtaining HK$15,000 in Old Age allowance benefits, an offence she had committed 12 years earlier. Then there was the labourer who cheated the Social Welfare Department of more than HK$57,000 in unemployment benefits who received a one-year jail sentence. Another man who defrauded the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance of HK$60,308 was jailed for six months.

But then consider former High Court judge Miles Jackson-Lipkin and his wife who were found guilty of defrauding more than HK$100,000 in welfare payouts and were jailed for 11 months - though released after four months on account of their old age and health. There was nevertheless widespread disapproval at their early release. Interestingly, Kevin Zervos, who is now Director of Public Prosecutions, was the prosecutor in the Lipkins case.

He told the court at the time that an immediate custodial sentence was necessary given the magnitude of the couple's offence. While age and state of health could be mitigating factors, Zervos said the chief magistrate had already considered these factors in reducing the sentence from 15 months to 11 months. It will be interesting to see if he presses for a stiffer sentence for the two civil servants sentenced yesterday. Then we are reminded of the case in 2000 of acting Commissioner for Inland Revenue Agnes Sin Law Yuk-lin and her husband who defrauded the government of HK$335,000 in the form of a housing allowance she received for a flat in which her husband had an interest. A custodial sentence was not considered to be in the public interest, according to the judge, so they received a nine-month jail sentence suspended for two years. Of course their "contributions to society were taken into account".

Speculation that they might lose their pension did not come to pass. The same, alas, cannot be said for Senior Superintendent Brian Heard, who was found after an investigation by the ICAC to have assisted in trying to secure a visa for a friend's girlfriend with bogus information. There was no money involved in this, yet he was jailed for six months and lost his HK$8 million pension. It is clear that certain civil servants are treated with a light touch, while some get the book thrown at them. But your man in the street gets short shrift from the law. We are under no illusions that should we decide to fiddle our expenses to the tune of HK$700,000 we would be behind bars in no time, despite our not inconsiderable contributions to society.

 

Judiciary car in the frame

The picture in yesterday's column of a government car parked illegally has attracted some attention. In response to readers' queries we can report that the government has confirmed that the car is allocated to the judiciary, though to no one judicial figure in particular.

 

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com

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