The academic who quit the government's MTR inquiry because of a potential conflict of interest has clarified details of the farce over his two-hour appointment.
It came as lawmakers urged the MTR board of directors to investigate the role of the corporation's chief executive Jay Walder in the two-year delay to the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.
While the delay was made public on April 15, reports submitted to the Legislative Council on Friday showed that back on November 22, the government intended to make it known the rail link may not open until 2017.
However, on November 21, Walder made a call to Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung in which he said the MTR could still meet the original 2015 target. Cheung gave him "the benefit of the doubt" and decided not to notify lawmakers.
On Friday, the government announced it would set up a panel of experts to investigate communications between it and the MTR on the project, with former University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor Professor Lee Chack-fan as its head. Just two hours later, Lee quit following the revelation that he was an independent non-executive director of Paul Y Engineering, a key contractor for the project's troubled West Kowloon terminus.
Lee said yesterday: "I didn't know Paul Y was involved in the high-speed railway project. It has hundreds of projects; there's no way to know which project it's working on. I thought the government would have my curriculum vitae, and know [I was connected to Paul Y]."
Lee, a geotechnical engineer, said he received a call from Cheung a day before the appointment and agreed to head the panel as he wanted to help. "I was at a banquet and it was quite a rush because I had to go on stage to introduce the guests," he said.
The panel is to consist of three members, including one overseas expert, and Lee said he had suggested some suitable foreign experts to Cheung.
The MTR Corp announced its own investigation the previous Tuesday. It has formed a committee of the board's non-executive directors to review management of the project. It is expected to submit a report by July.
New People's Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said the board should examine whether Walder had done his job in monitoring progress of the HK$67 billion cross-border express.
"Did he ask the necessary questions to check if the team could really deliver the project on time before calling the transport minister?" Tien asked on RTHK radio yesterday. "If he didn't, then it's serious negligence."
Tien said the board could force Walder to quit if he was found to be at fault, whereas it would be difficult for the government, even in its role as a major MTR shareholder, to simply sack Walder. Tien added: "Before Walder took up the post [in 2001], there didn't seem to be so many problems on the MTR."
Walder, an American, was formerly head of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said the government could find it hard to investigate the listed company. He advised invoking Legco's investigative powers. He said he planned to table a motion of no confidence against Cheung, and added: "Jay Walder should resign."