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Hong Kong justice chief admits lack of political sensitivity but refuses to resign over illegal structures scandal

Teresa Cheng apologises for not being alert yet insists the scandal will ‘strengthen’ her for the job

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 8:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 1:28pm

Hong Kong’s embattled justice minister on Wednesday admitted a “lack of alertness and political sensitivity” but rejected calls for her resignation over the discovery of illegal structures at her luxury home, insisting instead that the scandal would help her do a better job.

“I will not resign,” Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said in a media briefing on the controversy that has cast a shadow on her appointment to the hottest seat in Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration.

“I could have done better ... I think this particular incident has [taught me a lot] and actually allowed me to strengthen myself in performing my duties as a secretary for justice in the future.”

Cheng reiterated her claim that the illegal structures in her home, which included a large basement and a rooftop extension, were already there when she bought it for HK$26 million at Tuen Mun’s Villa De Mer estate in 2008. Buildings Department inspectors on Tuesday identified a total of 10 such unauthorised extensions at her house and her husband’s home next door.

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She said she had not been aware that the structures were illegal, and had not thought of hiring a qualified professional to check the property until she was alerted by the department last Friday.

Cheng said she had been very busy with teaching and commitment to other work in various public bodies since she bought the property.

Although Cheng’s critics have taken her to task over her qualification as a chartered engineer and experience serving as one of the heads of an appeal panel on illegal structure cases, she insisted it was “not a question of common sense” that she should have checked the legality of the extensions at her own house.

Identifying such structures required professionals endorsed by the government, Cheng said, and both she and her husband, electrical engineer Otto Poon Lok-to, were not authorised to do the job.

She also dodged a question on whether she had, at any time during a decade in her home, doubted the legality of the structures.

She apologised for her “lack of alertness and political sensitivity”, adding that an authorised professional who had surveyed the house had submitted a rectification plan on Wednesday to the Buildings Department for approval.

Addressing concerns about a shared door in the back gardens of both houses, Cheng said it had been installed by her husband and she “of course” knew about it, but she had not carried out any alterations inside or outside her home after she bought it.

Cheng’s explanation came a day after the chief executive defended her, insisting her new minister’s integrity had not been compromised by the scandal.

On Wednesday, pan-democratic lawmakers also wrote to the Legislative Council’s House Committee requesting a special meeting to which Cheng would be invited to explain the issue.

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said Cheng, who once chaired the Appeal Tribunal Panel (Buildings), should have had ample experience to be aware of her own situation.

He urged Cheng to provide a full explanation to Legco, saying that it would be her “last chance” to regain public trust.

Cheng served as one of the chairpersons of the panel between 2000 and 2006. It handles appeals by owners who reject Buildings Department warnings about illegal structures on their properties.

“It is absolutely an issue of integrity ... how can the public trust this person to safeguard the rule of law?” Yeung said, adding that his party would push for Cheng to quit if she failed to respond and clear concerns.

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Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin found Cheng’s explanations unconvincing.

“She tried to play her innocence as an excuse. It’s like treating us as three year olds,” he said, adding that Cheng should have some “common sense”.

Wan said she was either lying or had poor judgment, and should consider resigning.

He also urged authorities to further investigate the case and summon the previous owner to verify Cheng’s claims.

Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen earlier rejected Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting’s request to file an urgent question and an adjournment motion over the issue at Wednesday’s council meeting.

It is the third time in five days that Cheng, who took office on Saturday, has attempted to explain herself amid mounting calls for her resignation.

Earlier on Wednesday, Cheng was spotted at 7am leaving her home wearing what appeared to be a mink coat. She did not comment on her case.

Cheng first met the media on Saturday when news of the scandal broke. At the time, she only apologised for the controversy caused by the matter.

Buildings Department officials were first alerted by media inquiries concerning three houses in the neighbourhood on December 27. But the department said the owners were not identified then.

Cheng’s appointment was announced at 10.30am last Friday. At around noon the same day, inspectors visited the houses without alerting the owners. They left behind notices after they were denied entry by security guards.

Inspectors said they only learned Cheng was the owner of one of the houses through further media inquiries made that same day.