‘I’m not without integrity,’ Hong Kong’s scandal-plagued justice minister tells lawmakers
Skirting calls to quit, Teresa Cheng also does not provide any extra information on illegal structures at her properties, merely pledging to attend a Legco panel meeting next Monday
Hong Kong’s beleaguered justice chief was in for a grilling on Wednesday for the first time in the legislature over the illegal structure scandal threatening to end her ministerial career, but she skirted calls to step down and insisted she was not “a person without integrity”.
Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah did not provide any additional information regarding the unauthorised extensions to her luxury homes, merely pledging to attend a panel meeting next Monday despite mounting demands from lawmakers across the political spectrum for an immediate and full explanation.
The city’s new secretary for justice was embroiled in scandal from her first day in office this month when 10 illegal structures – including a large basement and a rooftop extension – were discovered at her HK$26 million (US$3.3 million) home and her husband’s house in Tuen Mun’s Villa De Mer estate.
The controversy deepened over the weekend after Cheng’s office issued a late-night statement admitting there were three illegal structures at a flat she owned in Southern district.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum took the opportunity to follow up on the scandal at the weekly Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday, tabling three oral questions on the Buildings Department’s handling of illegal structures, the administration’s integrity check on incoming officials and whether the justice minister should give up the power to prosecute, which effectively summoned Cheng to Legco.
“Hongkongers now do not believe you are an honest person. You alone are the biggest obstruction to the city’s legal system,” Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki told Cheng when discussing the issue of prosecuting power. “Are you still suitable to take up [this role]?”
Cheng replied: “I do not accept [the suggestion] that I am a person without integrity.”
She said judicial impartiality was “not subject to a person alone but a whole system”, adding the decision on a criminal prosecution should be based on the law, evidence and the prosecution code.
Having earlier ruled out stepping down, Cheng skirted renewed calls for her resignation from opposition lawmakers Roy Kwong Chun-yu of the Democratic Party and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen of People Power.
Cheng emphasised that she had already delegated all decisions relating to the illegal structures at her residences to the director of public prosecutions.
Development minister Michael Wong Wai-lun and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen were also grilled by lawmakers over the Cheng debacle.
Husband signed deal for Teresa Cheng’s luxury HK$62 million Repulse Bay flat with full knowledge of illegal structures
While Wong stressed that the government had not offered Cheng any preferential treatment, Nip was attacked over the effectiveness of the government’s integrity vetting of incoming officials.
“The political bombshell triggered by illegal structures has already harmed Cheng as well as the government,” said Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the city’s biggest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
“Why didn’t the justice minister check whether there were any illegal structures at her home before assuming her role? Why couldn’t the government find out about the illegal structures through the integrity check? Is there any loophole in the system?”
Nip pledged to review the existing mechanism, but refused to say whether the integrity checks had touched upon illegal structures, and turned down lawmakers’ requests to disclose further details.
Meanwhile, Cheng, who had earlier promised only to attend the meeting of Legco’s legal services panel on February 26, agreed to turn up for a special meeting next Monday to address lawmakers’ questions over her work plan as well as the scandal.
Whether opposition pan-democrats would withdraw a motion to summon Cheng to Legco to testify over the scandal – to be tabled on January 31 – would depend on her attitude and response at the special meeting, the Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok, vice-chairman of the panel, added.