Tycoon accuses politicians of manipulating job row
Property tycoon Henry Cheng Kar-shun told a Legco inquiry that the row over his hiring of ex-housing chief Leung Chin-man had been politicised ahead of last year's Legislative Council election.
In what is believed to be a historic first, Mr Cheng, the chairman of New World China Land, fronted up to a three-hour Legco hearing yesterday. As far as key legislators can remember, it is the first time the chairman of a listed company has testified before such a hearing.
He said that when he offered the retired government official an executive directorship in August last year, the possibility of public criticism relating to Mr Leung's recent employment as a senior government official with direct links to the housing sector had not occurred to him.
Mr Leung, the man at the centre of the row, was also at the hearing yesterday, making his first public appearance since his aborted appointment to New World China Land last year. However, the retired official's first testimony, scheduled for yesterday after Mr Cheng, was postponed until early next month.
The row about his private-sector employment, which became a hot topic of debate, came to light about a month before the Legco election in early September.
'What went wrong was that [the appointment] coincided with the Legco election,' Mr Cheng said. 'Many people took advantage of the incident and created a political platform for themselves. The incident became sensitive, which was something I could not have foreseen.'
Shortly after Mr Leung's appointment was announced, allegations of government-business collusion were raised and the Democratic Party pushed for a special Legco inquiry to investigate the controversy.
Mr Cheng, along with New World Development executive director Stewart Leung Chi-kin, who also testified at the hearing yesterday, rejected the claims against his company and Mr Leung.
Mr Cheng said: 'I didn't have public criticism or government-business collusion in my mind at all [when hiring Mr Leung]. There has never been any transfer of benefits between us and Mr Leung.' He had thought the job offer to Mr Leung was reasonable and legal, he said.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, who is the vice-chairman of the Legco inquiry, disagreed with the property tycoon's observation that politicians had taken advantage of the incident.
'There were overwhelming news reports and editorials on the issue ... It was not only one group of people who were particularly interested in the incident. Members of the public were also interested,' Mr Lee said, speaking after the meeting.
In 2004, Mr Leung, who was the director of housing at the time, was heavily criticised when the government sold the Hunghom Peninsula housing estate to a consortium - including a New World subsidiary - for barely half the asking price.
New World China Land, which offered Mr Leung the job, is a New World Development subsidiary.
Mr Cheng said he did not know whether Mr Leung had been involved in any of the decision-making concerning the sale of the Hunghom Peninsula flats, adding that 'it was not a decision made by one person, but a collective effort'.
He said he thought Mr Leung was an honest and reliable person suitable to take up the role offered him.
The inquiry heard that Mr Leung was first introduced to Mr Cheng in 2006. In May last year the two had lunch together and talked about the job offer. During the discussion, Mr Leung said he expected a pay package of between HK$3 million and HK$4 million a year.
The hearing continues.