Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said yesterday he was "serious" about allegations against former chief graft-buster Timothy Tong Hin-ming, but any decision on what to do would await the outcome of an internal investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Leung was making his first direct remarks about the allegations since they surfaced two weeks ago. The comments also came as former ICAC officers released a petition calling for Tong answer them in public.
Despite his declaration of seriousness the chief executive was accused of trivialising the issue by declaring that his was a clean government whose officials did not wear flowers in their buttonholes or drink bottled water at meetings.
Tong, reported to have hosted more than 20 lavish meals for top office-holders from the central government's liaison office, also used the public purse to pay for expensive presents to mainland officials, including cookies and mooncakes worth more than HK$48,000. The sum was not included in HK$220,000 the ICAC had earlier told the Legislative Council that Tong had spent on gifts in his tenure. Leung said that when the ICAC finished its internal investigation, "certainly there will be a decision on whether there is a need to handle the matter solemnly and comprehensively. [We] will report to the public when a decision is made".
He said a clean government had been "our strong focus".
"We do not wear boutonnière at public events. We also try our best not to conduct gift exchanges with visiting guests ... tap water, not bottled water, is used during all meetings."
But Democratic Party chief executive Lam Cheuk-ting, an investigator under Tong who has laid a formal complaint about the allegations, said it was a crisis for Hong Kong that could jeopardise the public's view of the ICAC.
"CY should not just talk about water, which is just too trivial."
Lam has collected more than 10 signatures of former ICAC officers for a petition urging Tong, who has stayed silent so far, to come out in public.
In a statement, co-signed by former ICAC chief investigator Stephen Char Shik-ngor, the ex-officers also urged the authorities to strengthen scrutiny over top ICAC officials.
Tong, a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, stepped down as commissioner last year.
Former deputy commissioner Tony Kwok Man-wai meanwhile said in a statement that any independent investigation must come after the ICAC's own probe, in which the public should trust.
"Acting in accordance with the rule of law has been among Hong Kong's core values. The supervision and check-and-balance mechanisms at the ICAC have been effective for the past 39 years," he said.
But Lam said the allegations deserved public scrutiny.