The question of whether two senior Hong Kong immigration officials breached anti-corruption laws by accepting gift hampers from an Evergrande executive director depends on whether the mainland company has had official dealings with the department such as visa applications, according to a former investigator.
Stephen Char, a barrister and former principal investigator for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), also said during an RTHK radio interview on Thursday that the public may question whether the hampers which the officials received from an Evergrande executive director, whom they called a “close personal friend,” were paid for by the director personally or by the company.
The director’s driver was caught on camera delivering the hampers to the Immigration Department’s second in command and a principal immigration officer at their homes, days before this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, Stand News reported on Wednesday. The hampers were officially priced at HK$3,388 each, exceeding the permissible amount of HK$3,000 under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.
Deputy Director for Immigration Benson Kwok and Principal Immigration Officer Jacky Wong were based in Beijing until 2015. Both have oversight over visa processing, Stand News reported.
The officials said the hampers were a gift from a “close friend” with whom they had no official dealings. The hampers were also available for sale with early bird discounts, making them worth less than HK$3,000, they told Stand News.
Civil servants may accept but not solicit gifts from “a close personal friend” on occasions where gifts are traditionally given or exchanged, such as weddings or birthdays, according to the city’s anti-corruption rules. The rules require that the gift’s “apparent value… does not exceed HK$3,000 from any one person on any one occasion.” Gifts that do not fulfil these requirements are not allowed except with approval from the relevant authority.
Char said it was worth questioning the nature of the officials’ relationship with the Evergrande executive. “It seemed fine on the surface… but the problem is, how are you a close personal friend ? Were the gifts paid for personally or expensed by the company?” he said. “If it was paid by the company, then how are you close personal friends with the company?”
The question of whether the recipients had official dealings with the company was not limited to personal contacts, Char said. “‘Official dealings’ do not refer to whether you personally have dealings with this person or this company, but whether this company has official dealings with the Immigration Department, If it does, even though you said you personally do not participate directly in these dealings, you cannot accept it,” he said.
Examples may include visa applications filed by a company, said the former ICAC veteran.
“It’s not like it’s OK to accept things as long as it’s HK$2,999 and not HK$3,000. The spirit of the law is that civil servants should remain alert and not accept benefits or interests from others. There’s a request behind every gift,” Char said. “The public will ask, then did you gift back anything? It’s only appropriate if the gifts are reciprocated. Also, is this the first time?… These [questions] are not known to the public.”
Embattled giant property developer Evergrande is currently facing a debt crisis, with debts estimated at around US$300 billion. It has developments and offices across mainland China, including near the border in Shenzhen and in Hong Kong. It did not respond to HKFP’s enquiries sent on Wednesday.
The Immigration Department did not state whether Evergrande had filed any visa applications with it. “Since there were no dealings in their official capacities, and the value of the gifts did not exceed relevant regulations, the concerned officers did not make any declaration,” a statement from the department’s spokesperson said.
“[The department’s] follow-up is in progress. The [department] stressed that it always attaches great importance to staff conduct. If any officer is found to be involved in any unlawful acts or misconduct, the [department] will handle the matter seriously in accordance with the law and established procedures.”
The ICAC said it would not comment on individual cases but would take enforcement action in accordance with the law and existing procedures.
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