Marine Department officials may face criminal prosecution for charges ranging from misconduct in public office to corruption over the Lamma ferry collision in 2012 that claimed 39 lives, legal experts say.
"Suspected criminality" was uncovered - with 17 unnamed officials up to directorate level accused of misconduct - in an internal investigation of the department, Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said on Thursday. The investigation team had twice referred material to the police since starting its work in June, Cheung said.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principal law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said it was unlikely the officials would be charged with manslaughter, as the captains of the two ferries had. "They are not directly linked to the deaths of the passengers," he said, in reference to the absence of a watertight bulkhead in the ill-fated Lamma IV that inspectors and surveyors failed to detect.
A government-appointed commission of inquiry earlier heard that if the watertight bulkhead had been in place, the vessel would not have sunk so quickly off Lamma Island on October 1, 2012, soon after it collided with the ferry Sea Smooth.
Those inspectors and surveyors made up the bulk of eight officials named in the commission's report in April last year as having failed to execute their duties when they approved the Lamma IV plan or inspected the boat.
No names or roles were revealed in the summary of the investigation report Anthony Cheung released two days ago.
Eric Cheung said that if criminal offences had occurred, they would most likely involve misconduct in public office. A public official is guilty of the offence if they "wilfully misconduct [themselves] by act or omission" without reasonable justification.
Other charges might include conspiracy to defraud, if officers of lower ranks had colluded so their superior could not execute his duties, he said.
Lawyer Albert Luk Wai-hung suggested forgery of documents might be a possible charge, if the officials had signed documents without really checking whether required items were on board.
If that was a result of their having received benefits from the vessel owners, corruption could be involved, he said.
The summary released on Thursday said two of the 13 serving officials were of directorate rank. Seven would be disciplined while six would get warnings.
"Serving officials" may include civil servants who are taking leave before retirement, such as former marine director Francis Liu Hon-por. It is not known whether Liu, who is on leave until the end of the year, is among the officials concerned, or whether he would be disciplined.