Whistle-blower in MTR scandal involving HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link blasted by contractor at inquiry
- Spirited opening speech at official inquiry by lawyer for Leighton Contractors accuses subcontractor of grudge arising from pay dispute
- Statement is firm’s first on allegations that steel bars were cut short to fake proper installation at station platform
The main contractor at the centre of a construction scandal plaguing Hong Kong’s most expensive rail project denied on Monday having engineered shoddy work and hit back at its “disgruntled” whistle-blower.
Leighton Contractors (Asia), the main contractor for the extended platform at Hung Hom station in the HK$97.1 billion (US$13 billion) Sha Tin-Central link, broke its silence over allegations steel bars were cut short to fake proper installation, attending the first day of an inquiry hearing on the scandal.
In an opening speech at a government-appointed independent commission of inquiry into the alleged substandard work, Paul Shieh Wing-tai, SC, representing Leighton, mounted an attack on its whistle-blower, Jason Poon Chuk-Hung, managing director of the concreting subcontractor China Technology Corporation.
“In front of the media, so far he has tried to paint himself as a conscientious whistle-blower when he was just a commercially disgruntled subcontractor acting out of revenge and vengeance,” Shieh said of Poon.
Shieh suggested the issue had merely been a commercial dispute. He accused Poon of harbouring a personal grudge against Leighton arising from disputes over a payment of HK$6 million while the contractor had complained about the performance standard of Poon’s firm.
In addition, Shieh said, Leighton terminated China Technology Corp’s joint venture with FEWA Construction for the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai boundary control point project in April this year, soon before local media exposed the scandal.
“Poon is not credible and his evidence should be rejected,” he concluded.
The commission of inquiry is being led by Michael Hartmann, a former non-permanent judge on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.
In his witness statement to the commission, Poon said that on 11 occasions, between September 2015 and June 2016, he and his staff had personally witnessed the cutting of bars at the station platform by workers wearing Leighton uniforms. He estimated more than 1,000 bars had been cut.
However, in an email to Leighton’s management in September last year, Poon claimed the number of substandard bars had exceeded 30,000.
Shieh denied there had been a large-scale cutting of steel bars. Leighton only admitted a total of eight bars being cut short over a period of three occasions.
“This is a media ploy,” the lawyer said of Poon’s claims. “All he wanted to do was put a figure out, hoping that some unwitting media would get the figure … and then he made a song and dance out of it.”
He branded Poon an unreliable witness, arguing the subcontractor official could only produce five photos to support the alleged malpractice.
“We say there is no evidence to support the allegation of a widespread cutting of bars,” Shieh said.
Yet Leighton admitted it trimmed down the top of some diaphragm walls for supporting the platform without using couplers, the lawyer added.
“But it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe as continuous reinforcement bars are used which extend straight into the area,” Shieh said.
He argued the Buildings Department also approved the alterations with a remark that “the corresponding permanent structures are fully compatible”.
The lawyer dismissed the notion the saga had been a safety issue, saying Poon otherwise would not have allowed concrete to be poured over the faulty steel bars. “If it were so, it was he himself who put the safety of the public at risk.”
Sezen Chong, representing steel-fixing subcontractor Fang Sheung Construction, also denied any allegations of deliberately cutting steel bars to fake proper installation.
“Fang Sheung never engaged in any fraudulent practice of bar cutting and installation,” she added.
As to the eight defective installations, Chong admitted to “poor workmanship” on those occasions, but she argued such minor problems were unavoidable in the construction industry.
However, Simon So, representing China Technology, said what the firm witnessed about shoddy work was just the “tip of an iceberg”.
“There is never just one cockroach in the kitchen,” he added.
The scandals have already spurred an overhaul of top management at the MTR Corporation, with four executives resigning in early August and an early departure planned for CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen.
Police are also investigating the matter, as requested by the Highways Department.