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More illegal structures? Hong Kong justice minister apologises again and reveals checks on her other properties

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah breaks 10-day silence on scandal to disclose that she has asked ‘authorised persons’ to look at other places she owns

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 11:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 11:56pm

Hong Kong’s beleaguered justice minister did not rule out the possibility that she might have other properties with unauthorised structures, as she apologised on Sunday at least seven times for failing to deal with the illegal additions to her New Territories home before taking office earlier this month.

Land Registry records reveal that Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah holds via a company at least two other properties besides her Tuen Mun home – a flat and a unit in an industrial building.

Cheng took the helm at the Department of Justice on January 6 just as news of unauthorised extensions to her home at the Villa De Mer estate in Siu Lam emerged.

Buildings Department inspectors later confirmed 10 illegal additions had been found at her house and her husband Otto Poon Lok-to’s home next door. But Cheng insisted the structures were there when she bought the three-storey property in 2008.

Breaking her silence since her last media briefing on January 10, despite calls to explain herself, Cheng said in a Commercial Radio programme that she had never considered quitting her post. She also hoped that instead of focusing on her home, people would turn their attention to her department’s work and the “many important issues” facing Hong Kong.

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Asked whether she had checked for unauthorised structures at other properties she owned, Cheng revealed: “I’ve already asked authorised persons to look into other properties, and have been following up on what needs to be done.”

After the programme, she was again asked whether she owned other properties with illegal additions.

“Yes, there are other properties, I have already said just now that I have already engaged authorised persons to look into them and they are being dealt with.”

She did not say where those properties were, but Land Registry records showed that a company solely owned by Cheng called Westland Investment Limited holds two properties in Sha Tin.

One is a 1,000 sq ft flat in Block 7 of housing estate Royal Ascot, which the company bought in November 2006 for HK$6 million.

The other is a unit in Block 2 of Kin Ho Industrial Building bought in February 2013 for HK$2.3 million.

There were no orders from the Buildings Department to remove illegal structures from the two properties.

Site visits by the Post found nothing suspicious on their exterior. The industrial unit was locked from the outside, and there was no information about it on the building’s directory board. The flat looked occupied, with potted plants and decorations on the balcony.

Opposition lawmakers pounced on her latest disclosures. Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said: “There’s an implication that she has … issues at other properties. The most proper thing to do is to disclose these once and for all, and explain what the other properties owned by her are and whether there are unauthorised structures.”

The scandal over Cheng’s failure to disclose the illegal additions to the HK$26 million Tuen Mun home deepened on January 12 when police began looking into complaints filed against her regarding the issue. At question was whether she had “intentionally misled” a bank to secure a mortgage without mentioning an illegal 538 sq ft basement at the house.

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During Sunday’s programme, Cheng was asked if she, as the owner, should have told the bank about the basement.

“At that time, I was often not in Hong Kong,” she said. “Nevertheless, I’m not trying to use the fact that I was not aware of the unauthorised structures when I bought the house as an excuse.

“I am willing to bear responsibility, and I should have done better. I hope people can again accept my apology.”

Cheng used the term “apology” seven times on Sunday morning as she answered various questions about her home.

She bought the house in 2008 for HK$26 million, more than double the price the former owner paid.

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Asked if she had made any special deal with the former owner, Cheng said she did not know him or her.

“We just really liked the house and wanted to move in … We bought it to live there, we did not think of surrendering the deed and we did not think about its value going down,” she said.

Veteran criminal law expert Lawrence Lok Ying-kam, newly elected to the governing council of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said Cheng’s explanations had still fallen short. He said it would be difficult for her to carry on with her job if she left things unclear.

“First, it’s not clear. Second, it’s not sufficient,” he said in an interview with broadcaster TVB.

Lok said Cheng would have to prove how and why she was so busy during that time that she did not notice the illegal structures.

“Don’t just say you’re busy, that’s such a sweeping explanation and is not very persuasive,” he said. “Show the people how busy you are … take your diary out, [show us] how many meetings you had per day – arbitration, mediation, going to court, teaching in Beijing and in Hong Kong.”

While being busy could not justify her inaction, Lok said it would make it easier for the public to understand.

“If people accept it, you can continue with your job,” he said. “If she doesn’t explain clearly, it will be very hard for her to continue. How will she push for laws, how will she introduce new measures?”

As of Sunday night, Cheng’s office and the Buildings Department had not responded to inquiries from the Post about possible illegal structure problems at the justice minister’s other properties. A spokesman for the Department of Justice said Cheng’s declaration of investments and interests would be uploaded to its website and the Executive Council’s website for public inspection “very soon”.

Additional reporting by Ernest Kao