Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

Fresh conflict of interest accusations aimed at Hong Kong firm trusted with maintaining tree that killed Indonesian domestic worker Jumiati Supadi

  • Tree management companies have reshuffled their directors since tragedy took the life of 48-year-old woman, but conflict of interest identified in previous Post investigation has merely been replaced by another
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 11:28pm

Three tree management firms linked to the collapse of a branch that killed a domestic worker in August have reshuffled their directors since the incident, giving rise to fresh accusations of a conflict of interest.

The Post has found the changes potentially compromise two more contracts awarded in a tendering system run by the Housing Authority, Hong Kong’s main provider of public housing.

Responsible for 100,000 trees on residential estates, the authority told the Post it would look into the case and consider whether follow-up action was necessary.

Four months ago, 48-year-old Jumiati Supadi was killed by a 30kg falling branch at Shun Lee Estate in Sau Mau Ping, East Kowloon. The branch was from a 40-year-old Indian rubber tree.

It was the fifth tree-related fatality in the city in 10 years, and raised questions about why the contractor, City Landscaping, failed to identify acute problems with the tree over the preceding eight months.

Police have been investigating the case, and a Post investigation previously found that City Landscaping and another contractor, CK Garden Company, who were tasked with assessment and maintenance of the tree, respectively, were owned separately by a married couple, presenting a potential conflict of interest.

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Chui Chun-hung owned City Landscaping, and Miranda Leung Yuen-yee held CK Garden.

Housing Authority tendering rules do not allow for a single contractor to handle both tree risk assessment and remedial work in one district.

The companies, together with Gaia Tree Management Consultancy, at which Chui is also a co-director and major shareholder, have won contracts worth HK$14.3 million (US$1.8 million) from the authority for terms running from 2017 to 2019.

Since Supadi’s death, the three companies have undergone a reshuffle of directors, which has only served to create a new potential conflict of interest.

The latest company records show Leung has relinquished her directorship at CK Garden, and Man Kwok-hing, chairman of the government’s Arboriculture and Horticulture Industry Training Advisory Committee, took over as sole director on October 16.

Man, who was previously a co-director at City Landscaping, quit that position. He has been a director and shareholder of Gaia since 2005.

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In October, a new co-director was brought in for Gaia named Cheung Kit-han to replace Chui. Cheung’s registered residential address is the same as Man’s.

Crucially, the changes have left Man as the main director of both CK Garden and Gaia. The two companies are now serving as contractors for the authority in both the assessment of tree health and maintenance work in Tai Po, North and Sha Tin districts, under contracts worth a total of nearly HK$5.7 million.

The reshuffle sits uneasily alongside tendering rules from the authority, which state any conflict of interest must be declared.

A spokeswoman for the Housing Authority said both CK Garden and Gaia had declared no conflict of interest when bidding for the projects.

CK Garden only informed the authority of Man’s appointment in “recent communications”, she said. The spokeswoman declined to specify whether the authority was only told after the Post inquired about the case.

However, she said the authority had been told that Man tendered his resignation as director of Gaia in October, but the change would only take effect in January. Records with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry do not show Man’s resignation.

Chiu Yan-loy, a spokesman for the Property Owners Anti-Bid Rigging Alliance, said: “This is a direct conflict of interest. The authority should have done its job to investigate when it first learned about it.”

Chiu, also a community officer for the Labour Party, said the authority should terminate the contracts to avoid possible collusion.

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Ken So Kwok-yin, chief executive of the Conservancy Association, which focuses on protection of the environment, and preservation of natural and cultural heritage, said the potential conflict of interest was obvious.

“It’s possible that the contractor tasked with assessing the trees could assign more tree work to the other contractor in the same region,” he said.

So urged the authority to design a more transparent mechanism to prevent the potential transfer of benefits between tree management contractors.

“I believe this is the general direction of the authority, so they should move towards it instead of backwards,” he said.

A visit to the office of City Landscaping in Sheung Shui on Thursday found Man still had close ties with the company. A clerk said he sometimes came to the office.

When reached by phone, Man said he had quit City Landscaping, and confirmed his directorship at CK Garden.

“We report our work to the Housing Authority,” he said, refusing to comment further.