Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang has been charged with two counts of misconduct in public office - making him the city's first leader to be arrested.
Tsang, whose tenure as Hong Kong's No. 1 leader from 2005 to 2012 invited criticisms of collusion between government officials and tycoons, appeared in court yesterday to hear the charges against him.
Wearing his trademark bow tie and a grim expression as he faced a media scrum outside the courtroom, Tsang, who turns 71 tomorrow, asserted his innocence, saying his "conscience is clear".
He had assisted fully with the Independent Commission Against Corruption's (ICAC) investigations the past 3-1/2 years, he said.
"I have every confidence that the court will exonerate me after its proceedings," he added.
Tsang is accused of not declaring that he had discussions - conducted between 2010 and 2012 - with mainland tycoon Bill Wong over renting a three-storey penthouse in Shenzhen, reportedly at a nominal rate. Mr Wong is a major shareholder of Digital Broadcasting Corporation, then applying for various licences which Tsang's executive council was reviewing. It won a digital radio licence in 2011.
The second charge alleges that Tsang, when proposing an architect to be nominated for the terri- tory's honours and awards, failed to disclose that he had hired him for the penthouse's interior design.
Each charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years' jail. Tsang is out on HK$100,000 (S$18,500) bail. The next hearing is on Nov 13.
He is charged with misconduct while in public office, as opposed to accepting any advantage as an inducement. Former ICAC chief investigator Stephen Char told The Straits Times that this is likely due to "the difficulty of finding evidence" that proves a causal link between taking a bribe and acting a certain way on that account.
Tsang refused to take questions from journalists, leaving his wife, an emotional Selina Tsang, to read out from a handwritten statement.
In all his 45 years as a public servant, she said, he had been preoccupied with serving Hong Kongers. "To get his job done, he'd start working even before his regular daily early morning mass in church. I am proud to say he has served with devotion and diligence."
She added tearfully: "We longed for peace and tranquillity in retirement, away from politics. Instead, we now find ourselves dragged into a whirlpool."
The charges cap a lengthy and sensitive investigation into corruption complaints about Tsang.
Near the end of his term in 2012, he was accused of taking joy rides on private jets and yachts belonging to business friends. The ICAC has not charged him, citing lack of sufficient evidence. This and the time it has taken for the probe to conclude raised questions as to whether political calculations were involved due to Tsang's position.
Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen denied this yesterday: "The decision was taken entirely without political considerations, and definitely... not under political pressure."
Still, pro-Beijing legislator Regina Ip told local broadcaster RTHK she is embarrassed by what happened.
"It is truly unfortunate that we, Hong Kongers, have not done our best to govern Hong Kong in accordance with the highest standards of integrity."
But Mr Char pointed out the fact that the ICAC had gone after Tsang and, before that, his then No. 2 Rafael Hui shows that the city remains tough on corruption.