Weigh pros and cons before giving ICAC extra powers
The anti-corruption watchdog says cases of misconduct in public office are difficult to investigate under the current code, yet with more power should come greater responsibility
The importance of the role played by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in combating graft cannot be overstated. Created in 1974 to deal with grave public concerns about corruption, notably among police officers, the ICAC has helped make the city one of the cleanest in Asia. But challenges remain. The jailing of former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and ex-property tycoon Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong in 2014, for their part in a multimillion-dollar plot to commit misconduct in public office, served as a timely reminder.
Corruption remains a threat to society – and it can exist at the highest levels of government as well as among leaders of the corporate world. Revealing details last month of that long and complex investigation, a senior ICAC officer called for the agency to be given additional powers. Director of Investigation (Government Sector) Ricky Yu Chun-cheong said the ICAC lacked sufficient investigatory power to pursue misconduct in public office cases if they did not also involve corruption. Responding to questions from reporters, he said the ICAC hoped the law could be changed to provide it with the same powers when investigating misconduct in public office as it currently enjoyed with corruption offences.
Concerns of this kind, expressed by a senior officer, should be taken seriously. They require further consideration. But caution is also needed. Ever since the creation of the ICAC, it has been recognised that corruption is an especially difficult crime to investigate. Corrupt conduct is, by its nature, secret and evidence is not easy to obtain. This is why the ICAC has been given special powers of investigation for corruption offences.
The most draconian powers were removed after the Bill of Rights Ordinance came into force in 1991, but others remain. With extra powers come additional responsibilities. The courts have, at times, found the ICAC to have abused its special powers. The pros and cons of the call to extend the agency’s ability to investigate misconduct in public office should be weighed. Those responsible for committing such offences must be brought to justice. But care must also be taken to ensure that any extension of power is necessary and the right to a fair trial respected.