Hong Kong Freemasons angered by cash controversy 'cover-up'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 5:50am

It is an organisation synonymous with secrecy, but one trying hard to change its image.

However, confidential documents from the inner sanctum of Hong Kong Freemasonry - seen by the Sunday Morning Post - appear to show the task may be a tough one.

Some of the brethren have broken ranks to reveal what they describe as a cover-up over the misappropriation of HK$530,000 from Zetland Hall, the "craft's'' austere and understated headquarters in Mid-Levels.

In August last year, these Freemasons claim staff discovered a senior bartender responsible for making bank deposits had removed funds from eight months' worth of bar and food cash sales. He was later found to have been routinely delaying bank deposits for months - since at least 2009 - and was fired.

The matter was reported to police by the hall's general manager the same month, but, the sources say, trustees decided to withdraw the complaint to police weeks later after the money was returned by the bartender. The bartender confirms he repaid it.

According to meeting minutes seen by the Post, the chairman of Zetland Hall's trustees, John Li, instructed them in an e-mail dated October 18, 2012 to "handle this in a low-profile manner". "Trustees should simply give [lodge members] the facts verbally. If asked in open lodge, the reply should simply be that the matter has been appropriately dealt with. Hopefully, we can avoid unnecessary gossip," he added.

Some of the most influential men in history, including British royalty, have been Freemasons. In Hong Kong, members have included the city's most important figures. According to retired bankers quoted in a previous Post investigation, promotion to senior positions within the major banks in Hong Kong long depended almost as much on Masonic membership as actual ability, and the same view was held by others within the police force.

Paul Chater, the co-founder of Hong Kong Land, and early legislators Dr Kai Ho Kai and Boshan Wei Yuk were all active members. Chinese and Indians from higher socio-economic strata were allowed to join masonic "lodges" - individual groups sorted by common interests - from the late 19th century.

Currently, the more than 1,000 members in Hong Kong include senior government officials, lawyers, businessmen, policemen and a priest, according to masons the Post spoke to last week. But some have now turned against the rules of the brotherhood to publicly criticise the trustees' handling of the misappropriation of cash.

"It's outrageous ... hypocritical to say the least; Freemasons are supposed to live by the highest standards of morality, virtue and honesty," one member said.

Another added: "The trustees include law enforcement officers and lawyers. If there was evidence of a crime they should be professionally sworn to bring it to justice. I'm very unhappy about the way this was handled."

Zetland Hall's former general manager, who resigned after the affair in January and who insisted on anonymity, said members had submitted at least four written complaints and "many" verbal complaints, which he said the chairman ignored.

Li, the trustees' chairman, who is also president of the Hong Kong Aviation Club, said the decision to withdraw the police complaint was "settled by an overwhelming majority" of trustees. "I honestly think whoever spoke to the press is being really inappropriate," he said.

Outside the home of Freemasonry in England, brethren gather from Sri Lanka to the Bahamas. The Grand Master, the Duke of Kent (cousin to the Queen), appoints a district grandmaster who guides local members. In Hong Kong, this is David Fok, a prominent solicitor and a consultant at Cheung, Chan & Chung, whose younger brother is Court of Appeal judge Joseph Fok.

David Fok said he "had no involvement in the decision-making" and declined to comment on the trustees' actions.

The bartender who took the money told the Sunday Morning Post: "I returned all of it. I can't talk about the police case."

The member who leaked the documents said: "I think there should be much fuller transparency and if a similar thing happens in the future, there should be an immediate police investigation instead of a group of so-called professionals taking it upon themselves to cover it up."