Hong Kong Bar Association to scrutinise Department of Justice’s decision to drop investigation into Leung Chun-ying’s UGL payment
- Chairman says ‘on the face of it’ the department appears to have not followed convention
Hong Kong prosecutors’ decision to end a corruption investigation into former city leader Leung Chun-ying without getting external advice will come under scrutiny from the local barristers’ body, the Post has learned.
Chairman of the Bar Association Philip Dykes said the matter would be on the agenda next week when members of the Bar Council, which steers the 1,500-member group, gathered to meet.
That followed criticism from law scholars and former investigators from the city’s anti-corruption agency since the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would not prosecute Leung.
The DOJ’s announcement came on Wednesday, shortly after the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) revelation that its four-year probe into the former chief executive, over a HK$50 million (US$6.4 million) payment from an Australian engineering firm, had ended.
It also stopped looking into allegations that Leung – now a vice-chairman of the country’s top political consultative body – tried to influence pro-establishment lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding, who was vice-chairing a committee investigating him until last year.
Though refraining from offering a conclusive view, Dykes, a human rights specialist known for his role in high-profile cases against the administration, said that “on the face of it” the department might have spurned established convention.
“The precedent of seeking independent legal advice has not been followed,” he said.
The association often voices concern in formal statements on the city’s rule of law, when it sees fit. Recently, it has warned the public about unwarranted attacks on judges, and flagged doubts over the legality of a plan to have national laws apply in the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminal.
From 2014, the ICAC had been investigating the payment, from Australian engineering firm UGL to Leung.
The controversy stemmed from a deal Leung struck before he took office, after UGL’s 2011 purchase of DTZ, a property services company of which he was a director. As part of the deal, Leung agreed not to form or join a rival firm, and to help promote the company.
Leung received part of the money after becoming chief executive in 2012. But he did not declare this during a meeting with his cabinet, the Executive Council, sparking concerns over a possible conflict of interest.
The ICAC said on Wednesday that the investigation was based on whether Leung had breached the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance or had committed misconduct in public office.
The DOJ, whose decision the ICAC followed, said there was insufficient evidence to proceed.
But legal scholars have argued that the department should have sought outside advice, which they said was the norm for cases involving high-ranking government officials. Dykes agreed it was the norm.
For instance, the department got legal advice in 2003 when former finance minister Antony Leung Kam-chung was investigated over his purchase of a Lexus shortly before announcing a proposal to sharply increase the first-registration tax on new cars.
And it got overseas advice before the city’s second leader, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was charged – and eventually jailed – over misconduct last year.
Democrats in the city have already floated the idea of challenging the decision in court.
A department spokesman said the need for external legal advice depended on whether the expertise was already available within the department and whether there were possible perceptions of bias or conflicts of interest.
“In this case, after taking into account all relevant considerations, the DOJ did not seek legal advice from counsel outside it,” he said.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun agreed there was no need. She noted Leung had already left the administration, in 2017, and said that ended any issue of conflict of interest.