Racketeers escape prison

THE Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has expressed ''amazement'' at the lenient treatment of three relatives who ran a lorry racket.

The trio, who used the false papers to inflate the prices by up to $90,000 for second-hand goods vehicles imported from Japan, escaped jail terms yesterday in the District Court.

Brothers Chow Chai-sang, 41, and Chow Lung-sang, 39, and their brother-in-law Kwan Wing-kwan, 44, were found guilty of conspiracy to utter forged documents after a two-month trial. They had denied the charge.

But Judge Lugar-Mawson said he would spare them the maximum three-year jail sentence and instead fined them $206,000 each and ordered them to pay $50,000 each towards prosecution costs.

''The real penalty is having been found out and convicted. You have lost your good reputation,'' he said.

Sources at the ICAC, which brought the case before the court, last night expressed ''amazement'' at the ''lenient'' sentence.

It is understood an appeal for sentences to be increased is being considered.

However, an ICAC spokesman said it was policy not to comment officially on sentencing.

Several similar prosecutions against second-hand vehicle dealers are due before the court shortly and officers fear the fine will set a lenient precedent.

Prosecutor Stephen Ma told the court the scam was uncovered in 1992 while ICAC officers were on a separate inquiry into alleged bribery.

He said the three defendants imported medium goods vehicles (MGVs) from Japan but fiddled paperwork to show they were five years newer.

''By misrepresenting the age of the MGVs and selling them at what appeared to be bargain prices they made them more valuable to purchasers,'' Mr Ma said.

''The persons who purchased the MGVs were unaware of their true age. They stated they would not have purchased the MGVs at all or paid the prices offered if they had known the real age.'' The con also meant the vehicles did not have to undergo the 10-year mandatory government road testing.

''As a result, many have been operating on roads in Hong Kong without having been properly tested,'' Mr Ma said.

The prosecution proved 62 of the 350 lorries sold by the men through various companies were accompanied by false documents. Vehicles were stored and sold to unsuspecting customers at a Yuen Long compound.

The three defendants were arrested after being seen throwing away shredded genuine documents by the ICAC surveillance officers.

Judge Lugar-Mawson said they had hoodwinked the Transport Department through wholesale forgery.

He said any future deals would be scrutinised and treated with suspicion by department officials.

The men were warned they faced 12 months in prison if they failed to meet the 60-day payment deadline.

The judge did not give a verdict on an alternative charge of conspiracy to defraud because of the guilty finding on the other count.

Defence counsel, Anthony Sedgwick, had appealed to the judge not to make any financial penalty too harsh because it would be catastrophic if the defendants, all married with children, had to sell their homes.