Compared with the controversy surrounding fellow executive councillor Franklin Lam Fan-keung last year, the political fallout from the investigation of Barry Cheung Chun-yuen's Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange could be far heavier.
Cheung chaired Leung Chun-ying's campaign for election as chief executive, and at least three of his Executive Council colleagues - Starry Lee Wai-king, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung - conceded the police investigation into Cheung's struggling HKMEx would inevitably damage the cabinet's image.
Cheung announced on Tuesday that he would take immediate leave of absence from his many public duties.
Lee suggested the chief executive should decide on Cheung and Franklin Lam six months into their leave. But pan-democrats believe Leung should fire Cheung to salvage the administration's reputation.
It has been six months since Lam also took leave of absence from Exco, after coming under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over allegations that he used inside information about the imposition of new stamp duties meant to bring down property prices when deciding to sell two flats.
"The leave period cannot be too long," Lee said. "These investigation units understand the sensitivity of this issue. If they can process the investigation as soon as possible all parties can have a fair comment. I suggest the government consider drawing a line, [for example,] six months."
Lee said Exco's credibility would be hit because "the government took office [less than a year ago], but a few ministers or Exco members have already taken leave of absence or quit for different reasons".
James Tien Pei-chun, leader of the pro-establishment Liberal Party, agreed that the probe into Cheung's Mercantile Exchange was a setback for Leung's image and Cheung would need a miracle to save his political career.
"The investigation involves Cheung's close ties with the chief executive, and I think the Securities and Futures Commission pursued the case with a certain level of confidence," Tien said.
"No matter what the result may be, people will doubt whether it is appropriate for him to serve as Leung's top adviser."
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit suggested that Cheung resign from Exco. "If he wants to save the credibility and respect of his public positions, he should consider quitting," he said.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said Leung should also consider expelling Cheung from Exco in a bid to regain public trust.
"You [Leung] hired him. If you feel that someone is no longer suitable, of course you can ask him to go," Lau said. "Leung seems to be indecisive on this."
Former development minister Mak Chai-kwong quit within 12 days of his appointment and is now on trial for fraud. His successor, Paul Chan Mo-po, was accused of owning illegally partitioned flats and of drink-driving, but has kept his job, while former Leung supporter Lew Mon-hung has to report to graft-busters investigating claims that he perverted the course of justice.
Lau said the controversies showed that Leung had made poor decisions when picking his aides and forming his cabinet.
"His team seems broken apart. He was unable to find very credible, capable and authoritative people to help him, and people are angry about this," Lau said.
But New People's Party chairwoman and executive councillor Regina Ip dismissed such speculation. "We knew it was hard for Leung to form his team. Our [Exco] work will hardly be affected because there are a dozen of us, but there will be some negative effect on our image," Ip said.
Starry Lee, who chairs the legislature's financial affairs panel, said it had sent a letter to the SFC to express concerns about the watchdog's role in the controversy. The panel will discuss the matter on June 3, and could invite representatives from the SFC to explain the matter in future meetings.
Some lawmakers claim the SFC gave special treatment to Cheung because of his links to the chief executive.
Democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan said it was too late to discuss the matter on June 3. He urged Lee to hold a special meeting.