120 witnesses, 6-year probe: ICAC sheds light on Hui-Kwok case

August 07, 2017 19:07
ICAC Director of Investigation (Government Sector) Ricky Yu (center) poses for a picture with inspectors Winnie Lee (left) and Hazel Law. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong's anti-graft investigators have for the first time revealed details of their painstaking and multi-year probe that led to the convictions of former chief secretary Rafael Hui, former Sun Hung Kai Properties co-chairman Thomas Kwok and two others in 2014.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) agents who led the investigation into the corruption case have spoken about the wheeling and dealing between the former No. 2 government official and the realty magnate, a high-profile scandal that ultimately led to jail terms.

It took the investigators six years to net the two big "tigers". It all started with an anonymous letter, routed through a law firm, at the end of 2008, a tip-off that was devoid of concrete details, ICAC officials said on Sunday. 

An ICAC investigation team, led by director of investigation (government sector) Ricky Yu, began working under strict confidentiality, aiming to solve all the riddles and fit into places all pieces of the jigsaw.

The anonymous complaint was in relation to Hui’s luxury residence in Leighton Hill, a Sun Hung Kai development in Happy Valley that has a sweeping view of the racecourse, that Kwok reportedly let out to Hui for free, plus a spacious office for Hui’s use in One International Finance Centre in Central.

ICAC formed a team of just three agents to look into possible misconduct, with absolute secrecy to shield them from the media’s prying eyes given the stature of the people accused.

The investigation began despite a letter from Kwok's elite lawyers, who suggested that the property tycoon did no wrong in his dealings with the former chief secretary Hui.

Yu and his agents met Hui for the first time in December 2009, more than two years after Hui’s retirement as the chief secretary under the Donald Tsang administration. As Yu recalled, Hui was not too calm when his ties with Kwok were called into question.

The investigation faced one roadblock after another, with Yu and inspector Hazel Law having to establish connections from inadequate information at hand and dig through numerous historic files for clues, not to mention the many overseas bank accounts that were used to veil money transfers.

"Unlike other crimes, corruption and acceptance of bribery have no immediate victims, [since the process can take place over a long time], nor can we collect useful evidence on the spot," Yu told the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

Over many years, the agents interviewed 120 witnesses and checked 230 local and overseas bank accounts.

A breakthrough came from Hui’s tax filings, where Yu found three suspicious payments, of HK$5 million, HK$8.5 million and HK$111.8 million.

The public and the media were not aware of the investigation until Hui and Kwok were arrested in March 2012.

Yet for Yu, that was not the end of the task. Rather, it was the beginning of a legal marathon.

His team had to meticulously prepare all documents for a watertight, unbreakable ground in the legal battle that started in June 2014, facing off against top-notch lawyers hired by the defendants.

Any misstep or flaw in evidence or reasoning could have blown the case apart.

When Yu needed to appear in the court as a key prosecuting witness, he had to hand over the work, mainly the onus of adducing evidence, to chief inspector Winnie Lee, who previously had no knowledge of the entire investigation thanks to the impeccable confidentiality.

For 130 days of trial during which the case went from the Court of First Instance all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, Lee and her subordinates made almost daily visits to the courts and had to return to office to strategize for next day’s trial and prepare documents.

Hui was jailed for seven-and-a-half years, becoming the most senior government official to be convicted and imprisoned until his former boss, Donald Tsang, was ordered behind bars this year.

Tsang, who served as Hong Kong's chief executive for seven years until end-June 2012, was sentenced in February to 20 months in jail for misconduct in office.

Returning to the Hui-Kwok duo, the high-profile graft case is now officially concluded as the Court of Final Appeal last month unanimously dismissed appeals from the two prominent figures against their convictions.

Kwok, on a bail since July 2016, had to return to Stanley Prison to finish his remaining jail sentence, 22 months, following the June court ruling.

The case is the first of its category in Hong Kong that charged and criminalized officials and bribers citing the clause on conspiracy for misconduct in office in the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 7

Translation by Frank Chen 

[Chinese version 中文版]

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The ICAC trio collaborated at different stages of probe and undertook a legal marathon to put former chief secretary Rafael Hui and property tycoon Thomas Kwok behind bars in a corruption case. Photo: HKEJ
Rafael Hui (C) was accused of doling out favors to Sun Hung Kai Properties in return for cash and other benefits. Photo: Bloomberg
Thomas Kwok will have to return to jail to serve out the remainder of his prison term after the Court of Final Appeal rejected his appeal. Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong Economic Journal