Declaration of interest row after Lands Department official bought 13 plots

Lands Department to review procedures after official buys 13 plots in area she oversees and wins right to build homes from board she sits on

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 4:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 9:09am

The Lands Department will review its declaration-of-interest procedures after it was revealed a senior official overseeing Yuen Long had bought 13 plots of land in the district and planned to build four houses there.

Lands assistant director Anita Lam Ka-fun and her surveyor husband Thomas Tang Chiu-man bought the 8,274 square metres of agricultural land in Tsing Tam village - just outside the boundary of the area being studied for the planned Kam Tin new town - in Yuen Long for HK$18.8 million in July 2012, land registry records showed.

This was five months after Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said the government would invite the MTR Corporation to study development opportunities in southern Kam Tin.

In May this year, the couple applied for the Town Planning Board's approval to build four houses on two of the 13 plots.

The board's Rural and New Town Planning Committee, of which Lam is an official member and planning director Ling Kar-kan is chairman, approved the application on July 25.

Lam had declared her interests and was excused from the discussion during the meeting.

But committee member David Lui Yin-tat said the application should be vetted by a third party because Lam's colleagues' involvement in the issue could be perceived as unfair.

Lam's surveyor husband sits on the Town Planning Appeal Board Panel.

"Generally, civil servants who work at the Lands Department have the right to make private investments," the department said yesterday after Ming Pao newspaper reported on the matter.

The Chinese-language daily said the couple planned to run an organic farm on the site.

The department said Lam had complied with rules by making a written declaration within seven days of buying the land.

"We understand the investment concerned may still trigger public doubt despite the colleague concerned having complied with declaration requirements," it said. "The department will review if there is a need to improve the existing mechanism on declaration of interests."

Last night, Lam told TVB that she and Tang bought the land because her husband enjoyed farming. She denied the matter constituted a conflict of interest.

But former civil service secretary Joseph Wong Wing-ping said officials whose private interests and official duties were perceived to be in conflict would bring the civil service into disrepute.

"In that case, they might have violated the guidelines on conduct and could be liable to disciplinary action," he said.

Wong said the department owed the public an explanation as to whether it had devised a set of more stringent rules to prevent its staff from being perceived as, or becoming involved in, conflicts of interest. "It is the department head's responsibility to adapt the civil service guidelines according to its operational needs," he said.

Wong said he personally believed that land officials should not acquire land, even if the sites were outside development boundaries. "They should be asked to sell the land [to avoid the public perception that they are benefiting]," he said.

Democratic Party chief executive Lam Cheuk-ting wrote to the Independent Corruption Against Corruption yesterday, asking it to open an inquiry into the case. He said Lam might have violated the civil service guidelines set to prevent conflicts of interest.