THE immensely wealthy Hari Harilela draws great pride from seeing his name in a little pocket book published by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. On page 13 under the heading, Honorary Voting Members, the entry, 'Harilela, H N, OBE LLD JP' reinforces his reputation as a pillar of society, a longtime community stalwart and, perhaps more significantly, a Hong Kong success story. 'Voting members must be honourable,' says Mr Harilela, whose younger brother, Bob, shares the privilege and is an even more enthusiastic racegoer. 'We're hand-picked from a select group. We have high standards to uphold.' Leafing through the slim pocket book is like skim-reading a 'Who's Who' of Hong Kong. The 200-plus names (only five are women) include billionaire captains of industry - Cheung Kong's Li Ka-shing for example; judges (Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang); banking titans (Bank of East Asia's chief executive David Li Kwok-po); mainland entrepreneurs (Larry Yung Chi-kin) and government leaders (Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen) stand out. There are retired police commissioners, top businessmen and a host of luminaries of medicine, law and politics. More than any other establishment institution, the influence of the Jockey Club, founded in 1884, has long been far-reaching, as chairman Wong Chung-hin spelled out in the latest annual report: 'Racegoers, the betting public, members, charity and community organisations, Government and ultimately the people of Hong Kong use the club's services or benefit, directly or indirectly, from its activities.' There are about 16,000 active members and all owe their distinctive badge to a voting member. Applicants can be considered only with the support of two voting members, one of them attesting to the applicant's good character and 'integrity'. Each voting member was allowed to propose seven new members (two full members and five racing members) last year. For a $90,000 joining fee and a monthly subscription of $1,000, full members enjoy access to a swish range of Jockey Club facilities, such as the Beas River Country Club and the Happy Valley Clubhouse. Racing members have a lesser status but are still eligible to participate in a ballot to race horses. Within the exalted ranks of the Club's select voting membership, however, an ICAC investigation into corruption has exposed a darker practice that has long been rumoured, but never before substantiated - bribes, kickbacks and graft. A vague clue can be found on the members' notice board in the plush marble entrance to Jockey Club headquarters at One Sports Road, Happy Valley. Dated May 13, the notice is striking for its brevity: '. . . in accordance with 34 (a) of the articles of association, the stewards have resolved to delete the name of Mr A T Chiba from the list of members of the Club with effect.' Contacted by the Sunday Morning Post at his home last week, 82-year-old Abdulla Tyeb Chiba was reluctant to discuss the circumstances surrounding his dishonorable expulsion from a club he joined a year before the start of World War II. 'I have paid my penalty and that's it,' he stammered. 'I'm a retired businessman. I just want to forget about the whole thing.' Chiba's downfall was sealed in the District Court six weeks ago when his little-reported humiliation was heard by Judge Richard Hawkes. Chiba, whose Parsi family enjoyed considerable respect in Hong Kong, pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to help a businessman, Liu Sun-ming, join the Jockey Club. It was the first time the ICAC had taken such a case to court. As an honorary voting member, Chiba enjoyed the right to endorse several new members each year. Mr Liu, an electrical equipment manufacturer, gladly handed over $400,000, which he says he thought was the membership fee to be paid to the club. Chiba, who had fallen on hard times in his old age, was only too happy to nominate Mr Liu and pocket $150,000. The remaining $250,000 was allegedly split between others involved in the deal. Due to his advancing years and poor health, Chiba received an eight-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and a $20,000 fine. That he avoided an immediate stint behind bars was described by Judge Hawkes as an 'act of mercy'. 'It is certainly sad that someone with a distinguished past does something silly in his twilight years,' Chiba's barrister, Jeffrey Fenton, told the Post. 'He was most definitely remorseful and always prepared to plead guilty,' added Mr Fenton, himself a full member, whose father and uncles have been voting members. More significant than Chiba's regrets, however, are the questions which arise from his conviction. The issue strikes at the heart of the most popular and, perhaps, prestigious club in Hong Kong. Its average turnover per race last year was $155 million; contributing a staggering $13.5 billion, or 10 per cent of government revenue, to the public purse in 1997. And its good fortune depends in large part on the public's trust. Worryingly, sources close to Chiba's case revealed he had, without naming names, admitted accepting bribes from people he had proposed as members over the past 10 years. Chiba even commented on how the scam had become more lucrative every year. How many other voting members are cashing in on their privilege and allowing people to bribe their way into the club that controls gambling in Hong Kong? The answers vary, depending on whom you speak to. John Shanahan, an ICAC chief investigator who launched an inquiry into the issue, believes 20 to 30 voting members - about 10 per cent of those eligible - 'are doing this on a regular basis'. 'Over the years a large black market has grown up,' Mr Shanahan says. 'To be a Jockey Club voting member is a prestigious thing. I know from intelligence - as does the Jockey Club - that the value of selling your endorsement has risen steadily. There are a number of voting members who have been selling these endorsements for years. But when you have satisfied customers, it's a very difficult thing to prove.' According to intelligence uncovered by the ICAC, the going rate in 1998, even during Hong Kong's economic downturn, is between $700,000 and $1 million. Chiba was offering his services at a significant discount to the market. If Chiba or any other voting member had accepted bribes to fill their 1998 quota of two full members and five racing members, their illicit return would have been between $4.9 million and $7 million. It is in the club's and the public interest that only members with integrity should race horses, part of the reason all membership applications are vetted by the Club's security department. 'They obviously don't want infiltration by triads and undesirables,' said Mr Shanahan, who believes Chiba's case can send a message that such corruption will not be tolerated. However, when the Post contacted the Jockey Club's security department - headed by David Twynham, who oversees the vetting of would-be members - to seek a briefing, information secretary Wilson Cheng responded with a two-line statement: 'The Club does not normally disclose information on its membership, and we therefore decline to participate in or comment on your article.' Mr Cheng agreed to an interview after the Post wrote to the club's Chief Executive, Lawrence Wong. According to Mr Cheng, the Jockey Club believes the problem is so small, it scarcely warrants public attention. Waving the little pocket book (Chiba's name appears near the top of page 13), Mr Cheng recites the names of some of the great and the good: Dr Ronald Leung Ding-bong, Urban Council chairman; Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, Monetary Authority chief; and Allen Lee Peng-fei, Liberal Party chairman. 'It's a very impressive list,' Mr Cheng says. 'Our voting members are all responsible community members. How could they be bribed? They are many times richer than me. We have every confidence in the quality and the calibre of the voting membership.' The approval rate of applicants proposed and seconded by voting members is 'very high', Mr Cheng says. The Club stewards (who are themselves elected by voting members) have the final say, but usually only in exceptional circumstances - such as when an applicant is found to have a criminal record or be an undischarged bankrupt - will they veto a bid. A total of 462 full members and 923 racing members were welcomed into the Club last year according to the annual report. The average wait after being proposed is one year. 'There has always been a rumour that you have to pay money under the table [to join],' Mr Cheng says. 'We believe some of the rumours are started by people who were not proposed. They are unhappy and will say, 'Oh, I wouldn't hand over money'. Of course, there may be a very few cases and we have already identified one. But we do not believe the problem is that serious.' Mr Harilela says he, too, has heard the rumours. 'But they are never confirmed and it is a practice I have not personally come across. Voting members are very well-off and have very good businesses. I don't think they need any side money. I was shocked to hear about the Chiba case.' John Walden, a former Hong Kong director of Home Affairs and a Jockey Club member for more than 40 years, agrees there is a 'general belief that you can buy your way in'. 'Hong Kong people believe the sky's the limit, provided the price is right Presumably, Mr Chiba is not the only person who at some time or other took advantage of this situation, but I do not believe it is very widespread,' he says. As for the notion that the very well-off will not risk fortune, freedom and reputation by corruptly accepting an advantage, Mr Walden begs to differ: 'Simply because people have a lot of money does not necessarily mean they will not refuse more. As a generalisation, surely you know that, however rich you are in Hong Kong, it's never enough.' Mr Shanahan of the ICAC, who stands by intelligence suggesting 20 to 30 voting members are being corrupted on a regular basis, says: 'They don't need the money, obviously. Maybe it's face, or maybe it's plain greed.' A source with knowledge of Chiba's case suggests that in many cases, money does not change hands. Rather, a debt of favour is chalked up in the tacit knowledge that it will one day be called in. Ng Kien-hoon, an accountant who would like to join the Jockey Club, has called for an urgent review of the membership system. 'The key issue is the prevention of wrongdoing, not merely its detection,' he says. 'The system offers too much temptation, as the power to endorse new members rests with an elite group of voting members. It would be naive to expect no one would seek to take advantage of such a glaring hole. 'What is in place to stop voting members from doing it in exchange for commercial favours or for information? In such cases it becomes even more difficult to prove.' Mr Ng says of the need for change: 'The alternative would be to don blinkers and run round in circles.'