Jail shame of a model officer

A SENIOR Customs and Excise officer with an ''outstanding'' service record yesterday started a two-year jail sentence for bribery after becoming part of a cross-border car smuggling ring.

Li Chi-wah was sentenced at South Kowloon Magistrates' Court yesterday after pleading guilty to one charge each of offering and accepting bribes during the five months he worked with a car and electrical goods smuggling ring smashed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) a fortnight ago.

Defence counsel Mr Graeme Hagon told the court that until his arrest earlier this month the 32-year-old Hongkong Polytechnic graduate was ''one of Hongkong's success stories''.

Married to an executive secretary with a seven-year-old son and another child on the way, Li's family was still in ''a state of shock'' over his ''stupid behaviour''.

Fight Crime Committee members last night backed tough sentences for these crimes, but acknowledged Li's light sentence was because of his co-operation with the investigation.

His colleagues in the Customs and Excise Department who attended yesterday's sentencing were also puzzled why their boss risked what they called ''a high-paying job and happy family life'' for $25,000.

One officer said: ''I've known him for a long time, since he joined Customs. He was an understanding and tactful superior and there are not many people like him who are able to get promoted to this post in a short period of time. He was loved by everybody. We are going to miss working with him.'' Another colleague said he had rung Mrs Li at home after her husband was arrested, but said she was too upset to speak to him.

He also dismissed rumours circulating in the courtroom yesterday that Li had become involved in the car smuggling syndicate because he owed money to loan sharks.

''He bets on horses occasionally, but I don't think he is a serious gambler,'' he said.

Mr Hagon told the court yesterday ''Li has brought distress upon them [his family]. He has brought disgrace upon the service he worked for for so many years. What can be said on his behalf is that he has had . . . the guts to immediately face up to his responsibility in respect of these matters, to plead guilty and to assist the ICAC however he can''.

Mr Hagon told the court Li had lost his pension rights ''and in less than four weeks, he loses his home''.

He said Li's prison sentence would be ''in some ways an escape from the problems his pregnant wife would face of finding a new home and looking after her 80-year-old mother, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and lives with the Lis.

''The sooner that Mr Li can pick up his life again and try to salvage something, the better.'' Li stood impassively with his head bowed and his hands clasped in front of him as Magistrate Mr Richard Davies sentenced him to two years' imprisonment on each of the charges, to run concurrently.

He told Li that not only had he accepted a bribe but he had also sought to corrupt another officer by offering him a bribe.

''The Crown has granted you the concession of having your case dealt with in the Magistrates Court, restricting the sentence, due to the fact you pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and the indication you will provide further assistance in bringing others to justice,'' Mr Davies said.

Li will spend the next two years in a high security prison. An ICAC officer yesterday refused to reveal which institution he would be kept in, or whether his family would receive protection.

Li joined the service as an inspector in 1981 after obtaining a degree in textile chemistry, and his work reports were ''invariably outstanding'', Mr Hagon said.

Promoted to a senior inspector in 1989, Li was earning $33,000 a month when he was arrested and was seen as an officer destined for promotion.

Once he helped the first clearance of illegal goods across the border into China in a lorry he was irrevocably committed to helping the smuggling ring, which had been in operation since December 1991.

''He certainly felt there was no changing his mind and backing down,'' Mr Hagon said.

Li had pleaded guilty to one charge of offering money to a customs officer between August 1 and September 30 last year in return for arranging the unimpeded clearance at Man Kam To checkpoint of vehicles containing unmanifested goods.

At the time, he was in charge of staff deployment and instructing officers as to which goods vehicles to intercept at Lok Ma Chau.

He also admitted another charge of accepting $25,000 from a man on December 10 last year in Club Bboss in Tsim Sha Tsui in return for arranging or helping the clearance of unmanifested electrical goods and vehicles at Lok Ma Chau customs control point.

Legislative Councillor Mrs Miriam Lau Kin-yee said she supported heavy sentences for people involved in smuggling, although she acknowledged special circumstances existed when defendants helped the ICAC and the police.

''I do feel a sentence of two years is slightly low for the gravity of the offence,'' said Mrs Lau, a Fight Crime Committee member. ''But it depends on how much co-operation he gave to the ICAC and if it will bring other people into the net of justice.'' She said the Fight Crime Committee had been concerned about smuggling for some time and the administration was looking into introducing stiffer penalties.

Fellow committee member, Mr Justein Wong, also supports heavy sentences for convicted smugglers, but said if Li assisted the ICAC then Mr Davies was correct to show leniency.

''The magistrate probably thinks the man is a key witness and can help prosecute the gang leader or head of the smuggling ring,'' Mr Wong said.

Li was arrested by the ICAC a week ago when officers swooped on a number of container depots in the New Territories.

Nineteen people, including nine middle-ranking customs officers, have been picked up by the anti-graft police in connection with the multi-million dollar smuggling racket.

Twenty luxury cars and 684 video recorders were also seized from a number of containers at four locations near Lok Ma Chau.