Tong says gifts were 'in spirit of courtesy'

Former ICAC chief defends his integrity and presents of food to organisation that gave him fruit, and saw serving mao-tai as sign of respect

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 3:44am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 3:44am

An HK$815 gift of beef brisket and fish balls came up for mention at a legislative hearing yesterday into the alleged lavish spending of former anti-corruption chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming.

Tong said he had acted in "courtesy of reciprocity" when he approved the purchase as a gift in return for lychees that guests had bought for the graft-busters.

The argument came as a last-ditch defence against criticism of Tong's spending on entertainment, gifts and official visits as Independent Commission Against Corruption commissioner.

Tong reiterated his claim to be "a man of integrity", saying his deeds had "nothing to do with corruption". He also refuted allegations he was the first ICAC chief to serve mao-tai - a Chinese hard liquor - at official events, though he conceded having made it a practice during his five-year tenure from 2007 to last year.

"I had never tried to conceal, lie, harbour personal motives or carry out underhanded dealings," he said in his concluding remarks. "I have made administrative mistakes, but these have nothing to do with corruption."

Tong was testifying at the last hearing of the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee, which will deliver a report by the end of next month.

Committee chairman Abraham Razack would not be drawn on whether Tong lied at the hearing, but noted there were "inconsistencies in each of his answers".

Other members appeared dissatisfied with the evidence Tong gave as he tried to explain a string of violations unveiled in a report released last month.

Questions were raised on the purchase of beef brisket and fish balls as an organisation-to-organisation gift, as lawmakers delved into why Tong, as ICAC chief, would concern himself with the exchange of such gifts.

Tong said the items were bought in return for lychees the agency had received. "It was in the spirit of a courtesy of reciprocity that we decided to give in return gifts of a similarly perishable nature," he said.

Paul Tse Wai-chun asked whether, on occasion, the ICAC's gifts could have been more than "symbolic". Tse cited three scarves, costing HK$400 to HK$2,090, bought for another organisation. The items could have violated ICAC policy on the exchange of gifts, which must "be limited to the minimum on official occasions".

On the serving of mao-tai, Tong said: "The ICAC served 11 bottles of hard liquor from 2004 to 2005 [under then commissioner Raymond Wong Hung-chiu] so I am not the first one. I see the practice as a form of respect to guests."

Last month, an independent review committee appointed by the ICAC reported that Tong had breached the rules on 42 occasions - two of them incurring criminal liability - during his five-year reign. The Public Accounts Committee is looking at whether the ICAC has been prudent in using public money and will report in November. Legco has also set up a select committee, which has yet to start its hearings.

On top of these inquiries, Tong is also under an ICAC criminal investigation.