Two building professionals and a contractor have been acquitted of all charges relating to the construction of the lavish unauthorised basement at Henry Tang Ying-yen's home that derailed his bid for chief executive.
Architect Henry Ho Chung-yi, structural engineer Wong Pak-lam and Hien Lee Engineering Company were acquitted on one count each of building without planning approval from 2005 to 2007 and one of knowingly misrepresenting information to the Building Authority.
Soon after the ruling by Chief Magistrate Clement Lee Hing-nin, Tang apologised to the trio.
"I am deeply sorry for the disturbances that they and their families endured," the former chief secretary said.
Delivering his 82-page verdict in Kowloon City Court yesterday, Lee said there would have been obvious signs such as irregular steel and deep trenches around the site if the basement had been built before the occupation permit was issued in 2007.
"Such signs, if they existed, should not have escaped the attention of Buildings Department officers … who conducted regular but unannounced visits at the site," the magistrate said.
He added that there was simply no objective evidence to prove that such signs existed before the permit was issued.
The 24,000 sq ft basement at No 7 York Road, Kowloon Tong, included a wine cellar and a gymnasium.
Tang's wife, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, the house's owner, was fined HK$110,000 last year for starting construction of the basement without permission.
Yesterday Lee said he did not accept evidence of the prosecution's two expert witnesses, University of Science and Technology engineering professor Li Zongjin and structural engineer Jacky Chiong Kam-yeung.
Li, who had visited the basement six times, told the court he believed it was constructed before the occupation permit was issued because it would have been "impractical" to demolish the house's ground floor and then build the basement.
However, the magistrate noted that Li did not use words meaning it would have been "impossible".
Chiong told the court that the swimming pool above the basement could have leaked if the underground structure had been built afterwards. Lee said the engineer's arguments lacked factual or scientific evidence.
But he accepted the testimony of defence witness James Lau.
Lau, a structural engineer, found from his inspections at the site after the media exposé of the basement that 16 of 34 beams on the lower ground floor were of sizes significantly different from those shown on the 2006 plans.
But Buildings Department officers did not find these differences when they carried out inspections before issuing the occupation permit in 2007.
Lau said this supported his argument that the basement was built after the permit was issued.
Tang said construction work to remove the unauthorised structure was under way.
Asked if it would appeal, the Justice Department said it was studying the verdict.