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Carrie Lam

Justice chief ‘not compromised’ despite 10 illegal structures at homes, Hong Kong leader says

Chief Executive Carrie Lam defends newly appointed minister Teresa Cheng, insisting ‘this is not an integrity issue’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 1:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 6:31pm

Hong Kong’s leader dug in her heels on Tuesday to reject mounting calls for her newly appointed justice minister to resign, insisting that Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s integrity had not been compromised by the scandal over illegal structures at her luxury home.

Buildings Department inspectors found 10 unauthorised extensions, including two large basements, at two adjacent three-storey houses owned by Cheng and her engineer husband in Tuen Mun, hours after the chief executive declared she had full confidence in her pick for what is currently the hot seat in her administration.

“Based on the information that I have now, I do not feel this is an integrity issue, and that’s why it will not compromise Teresa’s position as the secretary for justice,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said.

She said Cheng had immediately reported the issue to her on Friday afternoon – hours after she announced Cheng’s appointment – when the new minister was alerted to the problem by the Buildings Department and media inquiries.

Five inspectors from the department entered the homes of Cheng and her husband, Otto Poon Lok-to, in a prime beachfront neighbourhood on Tuesday morning.

“The two houses were structurally safe but we found there were some unauthorised building works that were not under the permitted building plans,” senior building surveyor Robin Leung Chi-tim told the media pack waiting outside with drones filming the property.

Hong Kong housing minister ‘unaware’ of illegal structures at home of justice chief’s husband

The inspectors identified a rooftop structure, a basement, a horizontal extension on the ground floor, and a glass canopy outside the car park of each house as unauthorised additions.

The two basements measured 538 sq ft each – Cheng’s was 2.5 metres in height while Poon’s stood 3.5 metres high.

Poon also had an illegal garden pool measuring about 5 by 2.5 metres and an additional glass canopy at his car park.

Poon is a close friend of housing minister Frank Chan Fan, who said on Tuesday that while he had visited the house on several occasions, he had been unaware of the illegal structures. Chan was a witness at the couple’s marriage in 2016, which was made official by former justice secretary Elsie Leung Oi-sie in her capacity as a civil celebrant.

Hong Kong officials find 10 illegal structures at homes of new justice minister Teresa Cheng and husband

The scandal broke with media reports on Saturday. Later that afternoon, Cheng – also an engineer by trade – would only admit that the extensions were already there when she bought the house for HK$26 million in 2008, but stopped short of saying whether she was aware they were illegal.

Buildings Department officials were first alerted by media inquiries concerning three houses in the neighbourhood on December 27, shortly after Cheng was tipped to become secretary for justice. Officials said the owners were not identified at the time.

On January 5, after Cheng’s appointment was announced in the morning, Buildings Department inspectors following up on the inquiries according to procedure visited the houses at around noon, but were denied entry. They left behind notices informing the owners.

Inspectors said they had only learned Cheng was the owner of one of the houses through media inquiries made in the afternoon. As per protocol, they added, neither Cheng nor Poon were notified in advance of their visit.

Cheng herself has yet to clarify whether she already knew the extensions were illegal before the scandal broke.

Hong Kong buildings inspectors to begin probe into suspected illegal structures at new justice chief’s home

Both Cheng and Poon promised to fully cooperate with the Buildings Department and rectify the problem as soon as possible.

Poon issued a statement saying he regretted not checking whether the extensions were illegal when he bought his house for HK$27 million in October 2012.

“When I bought the house, I did not consult professionals as to whether there were any unauthorised building works. The pace of my work was quite hectic at the time. In retrospect, I did not make the proper arrangements,” he wrote.

“As a professional engineer and someone who has always been committed to contributing to the community, I understand that my performance has fallen short of the expectations of various sectors of the community. For this, I would like to express my regret, and am sorry. I will learn from this lesson and strive to do my best in the future.”

Under the law, Cheng, 59, and Poon, 78, are required to restore the properties to their original states as laid out in the building plans.

The scandal was reminiscent of the one that scuttled former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen’s bid for the city’s top job in 2012. He lost the chief executive race after a 2,400 sq ft illegal basement was unearthed at his luxury home in Kowloon Tong.

Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who beat Tang, was also smeared by the discovery of illegal structures at his home at The Peak.

Lam was the official, as development minister back then, who supervised the handling of Tang’s case. She spearheaded a citywide crackdown on illegal structures after similar scandals implicated other top officials.

How the media covered the illegal structures saga involving Henry Tang (2012) and Teresa Cheng (2018)

On Tuesday Lam conceded that Cheng had shown a lack of political sensitivity, but pointed out that it was difficult to find talent for top jobs in the current political atmosphere, which made for “a very hot kitchen”.

“For a very successful lawyer with an international reputation like Teresa to make up her mind to join my team is a very difficult and tough decision which could only be made with one purpose in mind, and that is to serve the people of Hong Kong and to serve the country,” Lam said.

“So I hope that people will give her some allowance, give her some time and room, to sort this out, and I’m sure that she will be able to handle her future duties as the secretary for justice with my full confidence.”

But opposition lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting was not buying any of it, saying Lam was being “too naive” in believing Cheng’s version of the story.

“Any ordinary person with common sense who has a house like that would question if it involved illegal structures,” Lam said, also pointing out that both Cheng and Poon were professional engineers.

He said he would consider asking for a formal Legislative Council probe into the scandal.