Vetting process not well structured

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 8, 2018
Those who do not learn from history are doomed, as George Santayana famously observed, to repeat it.

The latest example of that in Hong Kong involves Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah and the epidemic of illegal structures that seems to plague senior officials upon their appointments.

Cheng, sworn in on Friday, fell into the trap after her Tai Lam residence was found to have a number of "illegal" structures.

The discovery left not only a public aghast that yet another scandal of this kind can recur but also Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who hand-picked the barrister to be the government's top legal counsel, deeply embarrassed.

It's an inauspicious start for Cheng and the administration she now serves.

Of course, she is not the first top official to be trapped in this kind of a scandal: former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and ex-chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, as well as former officials like Michael Suen Ming-yeung and Kitty Poon Kit, and former lawmakers Chan Kam-lam, Cheung Hok-ming, Wong Yung-kan, Leung Yiu-chung, etc, all preceded her.

An illegal structure does not build up to death knell for a political career, so it would come as a surprise if Cheng cannot survive this fire and fury.

The question is rather about how she is going to respond to criticisms over the matter.

Tang, who resigned as chief secretary to run for the chief executive, did not provide a full account of the truth once the illegal structure at his home was uncovered, and his reluctance to do so contributed to his failure in the 2012 election.

CY Leung passed the buck to "professional" advisers after a string of illegal alterations were found to have been made at his Peak residence. He nonetheless remained chief executive but his governance was permanently weakened.

Cheng is expected to retain her job but her moral authority as the administration's top legal counsel could be greatly undermined - if she is not reduced to being a lame-duck secretary for justice.

I'm absolutely astonished that such a silly mistake is still possible after so many similar blunders in the past. Have those in authority not learned from the mistakes of the past at all?

The absurdity of the situation is entirely avoidable.

First, the appointment was not a sudden one necessitated by an unforeseen resignation and there was plenty of time to plan for the transition: it's public knowledge that Cheng's predecessor, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, would return to private practice and that Cheng was one of the early names tipped to be his successor.

There were plenty of opportunities to fix any mistakes.

The problems are obvious. But then they weren't discovered by the background security checks that are mandatory for all senior appointments. The background check is supposed to shield the government from scandals that may come with any appointment. Clearly, the security check failed again this time. Should those overseeing the exercise be held accountable?

It is foreseeable that Cheng will be a magnet for criticisms in the days to come.

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