It would not be surprising if the first Legco probe into the controversy surrounding Timothy Tong Hin-ming is seen as a failure. Defending himself for the first time in public yesterday, the former anti-corruption chief was criticised by lawmakers for being evasive. Given Tong is facing a criminal investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption he headed for five years, and that his appearance before the Legco public accounts committee as a voluntary witness did not give him any legal immunity, he was highly cautious when answering questions. Frustrated by the lack of progress, lawmakers cut short the session and decided to summon him to another hearing with special powers.
The committee's hearing was the closest we'll get to an open inquiry on whether Tong, now an appointee to the nation's top political advisory body, spent lavishly on gifts, entertainment and overseas trips for personal networking while serving as the ICAC commissioner. Regrettably, the first session, as the lawmakers said, was a waste of time. Not only were the replies long-winded and without substance, he repeatedly consulted his lawyer before answering, and occasionally threw back questions to lawmakers. The committee chairman, Abraham Razack, was probably joking when he threatened to stop Tong "filibustering". But what happened begs the question why the committee did not invoke the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance to allow a more meaningful inquiry. The public has high hopes of a full account of the fiasco. But the meeting ended prematurely without much progress. This, clearly, falls short of people's expectations.
Tong brushed aside claims that he had abused public funds for career advancement. But he said he would shoulder responsibility if found to be at fault. Like anyone under criminal investigation, Tong is entitled to protection under the law. Fairness and due process are essential. Likewise, the legislature also has its constitutional duties to perform. The committee works with the Audit Commission to ensure public spending provides value for money and abides by the rules. Unless Tong co-operates, the watchdogs cannot discharge their duties. This holds true for the inquiries and reviews being carried out by the ICAC, Legco and the government.
Justice needs to be done and be seen to be done. It is imperative Tong co-operate fully with these inquiries to ensure he will be judged in a fair manner and to help restore confidence in the ICAC's fight against corruption.