Ex-ICAC boss sees no political meddling in removal of Hong Kong investigator

But former commissioner Bertrand de Speville warns that ‘wild allegations’ about the anti-graft agency will damage its reputation and morale

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 10:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 10:24am

Former chief graft-buster Bertrand de Speville said yesterday it was “highly unlikely” the controversial departure of a top Independent Commission Against Corruption investigator was the result of political pressure.

But de Speville, who stepped down as ICAC commissioner in 1996, said he was concerned about the impact on Hong Kong’s international reputation.

“As Hong Kong has become more politicised, there is a lot of chatter and it is understandable,” he told the Post.

“People do seem to be nervous about the years to come and what is perceived as growing interference by the mainland. Whether that is true or not, I just don’t know.

“With regard to the ICAC, I would have thought it is highly unlikely. I do not think I am being naive.”

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De Speville is in Hong Kong to speak at a public forum today titled “Assault on the ICAC and the Rule of Law?” at the University of Hong Kong. He said he had thought carefully before accepting, in case he was “stepping into a hornet’s nest”.

The former top graft-buster was invited by forum organisers Project Citizens Foundation and Hong Kong 2020, a pro-democracy think-tank headed by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang.

The forum will debate recent controversial personnel changes at the ICAC .

Last month, the acting head of the anti-corruption agency’s powerful investigative unit, Rebecca Li Bo-lan, was removed from her position by ICAC Commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu, less than a year after he appointed her. She then resigned.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has distanced himself from the affair, amid speculation that Li was removed over an investigation into his receipt of HK$50 million from Australian firm UGL.

De Speville, who runs an anti-corruption consultancy that has provided services to more than 50 countries, said he would be willing to advise on President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on mainland corruption if asked.

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He said he believed the structure of the ICAC shielded it from interference.

“The checks and balances, the controls and restrictions, the accountability mechanisms in the ICAC and, very importantly, in its advisory committees, protect it.”

But he was worried about the impact of the controversy. “For all its fame and reputation, an instrument like that can be quite delicate and I am concerned when I see the wild allegations that are thrown around that this instrument will be damaged, to Hong Kong’s cost,” he added.

De Speville said he accepted the ICAC commissioner’s account of Li’s departure, suggesting it was normal for officers in an acting role to be there on the basis of “administrative convenience”.

This allowed the commissioner to “see another side of the person concerned”, he added.