Please don’t walk away, Rebecca Li – Hong Kong needs to maintain confidence in the ICAC

Tony Kwok says allegations of political interference at the Independent Commission Against Corruption are unfounded, and former top graft investigator Rebecca Li should reconsider her decision to resign

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 10:22am

The controversy surrounding the resignation of Rebecca Li Bo-lan, the former acting deputy commissioner and head of operations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, has not only been politicised and used by local pan-democrats and the media to attack the ICAC and the chief executive, but the issue has now been picked up by the international media.

In a report by The New York Times published this week, Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, warned about the damage done to Hong Kong institutions by pro-Beijing officials. And she said: “If the ICAC is finished, Hong Kong is also finished.”

So is the ICAC finished?

Not many Hong Kong people are aware that according to the law, specifically in the Independent Commission Against Corruption Ordinance and the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance, the definition of “the Commissioner” refers to both the commissioner and deputy commissioner. A deputy commissioner is not just the head of operations, but is expected to fulfil all the duties and to exercise all the power of the commissioner under the law. Hence, in choosing a suitable candidate for this post, it is not enough for someone to be good in operations, but he or she should also possess the ability, when necessary, to head the commission.

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As the first local officer to be appointed deputy commissioner and head of operations, I did not have a smooth sailing to the appointment. I was appointed the director of investigation in 1993 and by the end of 1995, my expatriate predecessor was due for retirement as he had reached the age of 60. Most people expected me to be promoted then, but it was decided that the service of my predecessor should be extended for six months, and the explanation given to me then was that “I was not yet ready”. I respected the decision. Six months later, I was not promoted immediately but had to act for six months in the higher post before I received the formal appointment.

I served in this post for over six years. It was a very demanding and stressful job. My priority then was the need to demonstrate that the ICAC remained effective after the return of sovereignty. I am most grateful to all my colleagues who were driven by a sense of mission, worked hard and made many major successes. But this in itself was not enough. I needed to formulate strategy to strengthen the ICAC. Hence much of my time was spent on identifying and seeking additional resources to enhance our professional capabilities, such as the creation of a number of professional units on computer forensics, investigative accounting, undercover agents, international liaison, and making a proposal for a new ICAC headquarters.

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All these entailed involvement in numerous meetings (or arguments) with government departments and the Legislative Council establishment and finance committees. In seeking law enhancement, we came up with the first case of the common law offence of misconduct in public office, which enabled the successful conviction of a number of senior civil servants. As head of operations, I held meetings with heads of other government departments and foreign law enforcement agencies, and I had to deliver speeches at international conferences, luncheon talks, conduct media interviews and so on. All this needed a lot of social skills.

As deputy commissioner, I often had to act as commissioner when the latter went on leave or on overseas duties, and had to assume the full duties of the role, including supervision of the two other departments of the ICAC: the Corruption Prevention Department and the Community Relations Department. This was most challenging. In short, the work is not simply investigation and requires someone with much wider dimensions of capability.

Critics suggest that Rebecca Li’s resignation is related to the ongoing investigation of the chief executive. This is a very serious allegation, suggesting a criminal offence of perverting the course of justice, and those who make such allegations should come up with proof or otherwise be regarded as totally irresponsible.

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I am not privy to any insider information but I should point out that all major ICAC investigations have to report to the Operations Review Committee regularly on their progress. This committee has highly respected members, including lawyers, and at least two members are from the pan-democratic camp. It would be insulting to all the members to suggest that the investigation of the chief executive can be compromised in any way.

I know Rebecca Li very well. When she joined the Operations Department in 1984 as assistant investigator, her first post was working for me in the special task force which I headed to investigate the collapse of the Overseas Trust Bank, and she demonstrated dedication and investigative ability, which I highly appreciated. I recommended her promotion to investigator, I chaired the promotion board in her promotion to chief investigator and I approved her promotion to principal investigator before I retired in 2002. I was also the one to send her to the FBI Academy and there was no political agenda behind the decision. At that time, we nominated officers every year to police academies in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia for professional training. I have high regard for Rebecca Li, and we are on friendly terms.

Would she want to see her colleagues following her example and resigning, leading to the collapse of the ICAC?

I am disappointed with her decision to resign, although I fully understand her unhappy feelings. But if she had asked me before she took the decision, I would have advised her not to resign. There are at least three good reasons she should consider. Firstly, she is still young at 53. The retirement age at the ICAC is 60 but with the introduction of the new retirement age for civil servants of 65, it is likely she could still serve for 12 more years, and anything can happen in such a long period.

Secondly, even if she resumes the post of director of investigation, this is still a very important post and she could continue to serve the ICAC and ensure its effectiveness. If she agreed to stay under such circumstances, I am sure the Hong Kong community would be most grateful to her.

Thirdly, she has worked at the commission for 32 years and surely has a deep love of the organisation. Would she want to see her colleagues following her example and resigning, leading to the collapse of the ICAC? As a senior officer and role model, does she want to suggest that it would be alright for anyone aggrieved at failing in promotion at the commission to resign?

Hence, I strongly appeal to Miss Li to reconsider her decision. If she decides to withdraw her resignation, I believe the commission will give her a warm welcome back and that will shut up all these voices politicising what I believe to be a staff issue.

Tony Kwok is a former deputy commissioner of the ICAC and currently an adjunct professor of HKU SPACE and an international anti-corruption consultant