Call for Exco members to declare their liabilities

Barry Cheung case raises questions on disclosure of personal liabilities to council

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 3:55am

The rapid departure from the Executive Council of Barry Cheung Chun-yuen threw up more questions than answers about how the troubled policymaking body operates.

After he quit last month amid police investigations into his failed Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange (HKMEx), many were left wondering if Exco's rules on declarations of interest by members should be extended beyond assets to cover liabilities.

The suggestion was floated by Exco member Starry Lee Wai-king after politicians Chim Pui-chung and Cheung Chi-kong revealed that the trading platform founded by Cheung had been financially stricken for at least a year. Chim claimed he had loaned HK$8 million to Cheung two years ago.

In an article Lee, an accountant, said what mattered was not how much debt members had, but "whether one has more debt than assets, and whether he is able to clear his debt".

Albert Ho Chun-yan, a Democratic Party "super seat" lawmaker, agreed that Exco members ought to disclose personal debts.

"This could trace the personal guarantees they have made to borrow loans, which I believe was the underlying problem behind Cheung's difficulties," Ho said. But listing corporate liabilities would be unnecessary, as renumerated directorships were already subject to disclosure.

Another issue is whether an Exco meeting should be suspended when there is "nothing on the agenda". That was the government's justification for the first aborted meeting in Leung Chun-ying's administration, shortly after the Cheung scandal surfaced. The timing gave rise to speculation Leung had tried to evade the media's attention.

While Exco member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee praised the present set-up for being more efficient than in the past, mainly because of a shorter summer recess, Ho, a former Democratic Party chairman, said the official explanation was absurd. " Politics is a daily affair, and Hong Kong has more than enough issues to handle," he said.

Exco's troubles date back to November - just four months after its formation - when Franklin Lam Fan-keung took an indefinite leave of absence to facilitate an anti-graft investigation.

He was accused of selling his two Mid-Levels flats shortly before the introduction of new market-cooling taxes of which, as an Exco member, he had inside knowledge.

While Exco members currently face no limits on how long a leave of absence may take, their counterparts in the legislative and district councils do. Legco members can be disqualified for being absent from meetings for three months without valid reasons, while district councillors are subject to a four-month limit.

But since Exco members are not publicly elected, these rules might not be applicable, said political analyst Dr Li Pang-kwong. Li, however, said that Leung ought to make a clear-cut decision to expel cabinet members who are subject to criminal investigation.

While Starry Lee has urged the government to ensure such periods of leave are reviewed within six months, Regina Ip considered the review period be made more flexible "depending on circumstances".

Ip said: "It's ultimately a matter for the chief executive to balance the costs and benefits - whether retaining a member is a political liability."