25 October 2016
The silence of Rebecca Li, former acting head of the ICAC's investigations unit, over her sudden exit from the agency in July has undermined public trust in the anti-graft body. Photo: Sina
The silence of Rebecca Li, former acting head of the ICAC's investigations unit, over her sudden exit from the agency in July has undermined public trust in the anti-graft body. Photo: Sina

Rebecca Li needs to clear the air on why she quit ICAC

Silence is golden. This is a well-known proverb that means it is often better or wiser to say nothing. Most people would agree it’s a very meaningful proverb. But it should not apply to Rebecca Li Bo-lan, the former acting head of the ICAC’s Operations Department. She has taken refuge behind it for far too long already. Her silence is no longer golden. It has seriously damaged and continues to undermine the credibility of the ICAC.

If Li really cares about the reputation of the ICAC, where she had worked for over 30 years, she should break her silence and tell Hong Kong people exactly why she suddenly resigned from such a senior and highly-paid job well before retirement age with no known offer of another more lucrative job in the private sector.

Something very serious must have made her do it. The public is owed the truth. By keeping her mouth shut she has allowed the media and people with political agendas to run wild with unproven allegations about the reasons for her resignation. This is not fair on the ICAC, her former colleagues, ICAC Commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu, and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is at the center of some corruption allegations. She is also not being fair to herself by keeping silent.

Her silence has caused so much public mistrust of the ICAC that only 13 of the 70 newly-elected Legislative Council members accepted a recent invitation by Peh to improve communications between Legco and the ICAC.

During the two-hour meeting, Democratic Party member Lam Cheuk-ting demanded that Peh Yun-lu provide details about Li’s resignation and if it was connected to an ICAC investigation into alleged corruption by Leung for a HK$50 million non-compete payout he received from Australian firm UGL before he became chief executive.

Lam criticized Peh after the meeting by telling the media that Peh insisted Li’s resignation had nothing to do with the UGL investigation. Unwilling to accept this reply, he demanded that the ICAC commissioner resign.

Has Lam forgotten he once worked as an ICAC investigator? He knows very well the ICAC is legally barred from publicly discussing ongoing corruption cases. He would not have publicly discussed cases too when he was an ICAC investigator. No respectable organization, government or private, would release details of why a senior official resigned or was not promoted. It is an invasion of privacy to release details without the permission of the official involved. In Li’s case, she has chosen to keep her mouth shut.

In fact, the ICAC commissioner did explain last July that he alone decided not to promote Li as head of the Operations Department because of her “poor performance” during her year as acting head. He insisted that Leung Chun-ying had nothing to do with it. But Lam and other critics have refused to believe the commissioner. They prefer to believe unproven allegations that the chief executive ordered the commissioner not to promote Li. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t suit their political agenda to accept the ICAC commissioner’s word as the truth.

I do not know if Leung committed any wrongdoing when he accepted HK$50 million in 2011, before he became chief executive, from UGL, which had agreed to buy the insolvent DTZ where Leung was a director. The money was to prevent him from forming or joining a competitor firm within two years. Such non-compete deals are common.

If there are credible reasons to suspect the chief executive did indeed violate Hong Kong’s corruption laws by accepting the HK$50 million, then the ICAC is duty-bound to conduct a thorough and honest investigation. But rumors, speculation, and unproven allegation spread by the media and people with political agendas have led much of the public to believe Leung is indeed guilty and that Li resigned because the chief executive and the ICAC commissioner conspired to prevent her from investigating Leung.

Some of these unproven allegations came from Lam who quoted unnamed sources inside the ICAC. Lam was a low-ranking investigator when he joined the ICAC in 2006 and only worked there for a few years before leaving and re-joining the Democratic Party.

How accurate and high-ranking are his unnamed ICAC sources? Why have our media and certain politicians accepted his word as the gospel truth and rejected the ICAC commissioner’s words as lies? Have Hong Kong’s reporters and editors forgotten journalism’s golden rule that if they rely on unnamed sources they must have at least two different and credible sources confirming exactly the same thing before believing it? Why haven’t the media and people such as Lam demanded that Li give a public account of what happened in the same way they have demanded that the ICAC commissioner give a public account?

Li is no longer with the ICAC. She has nothing to fear anymore from speaking the truth. If it is indeed true that she resigned because Leung interfered with her investigation into UGL, then she has a moral and public duty to expose this so that the ICAC itself can be cleaned out to regain the people’s trust.

It is a serious offence for the chief executive to interfere with an ICAC investigation. It is even more serious if the chief executive conspired with the ICAC commissioner to block an investigation and not tell the ICAC’s Operations Review Committee, which is supposed to be informed of all corruption investigations. It is in Li’s own interest to expose the conspiracy if there indeed was a conspiracy. Otherwise, fair-minded people should believe Peh’s version that she was not good enough to be promoted.

Opposition camp legislators want to use Legco’s powers and privileges law to force an investigation into the UGL controversy. If they succeed in doing this, they should make sure that aside from the ICAC commissioner they must also insist that Li testify under oath in Legco. The least she should do now is to publicly state that she is willing to attend such a Legco investigation and tell the truth under oath, preferably with documents to prove whatever she chooses to say.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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