HONG KONG (REUTERS/AFP) - Former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang was charged on Monday (Oct 5) with two counts of misconduct in public office, the latest in a string of scandals that have ensnared senior business and former political figures in the financial hub.
He appeared at a magistrates' court on Monday charged with misconduct and was released on a cash bail of HK$100,000 (S$18,482). He will appear again on Nov 13.
Grim-faced and wearing a trademark bow-tie, Tsang spoke only to confirm that he understood the two misconduct charges.
Speaking outside court, he insisted his "conscience is clear".
"Over the past 31/2 years, I have assisted fully with the investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. My conscience is clear. I have every confidence that the court will exonerate me after its proceedings," he said in a statement to the South China Morning Post.
His wife Selina, who was with him, said she was "deeply disheartened" by the case. "We longed for peace and tranquillity in retirement... instead we now find ourselves dragged into a whirlpool," she said.
Tsang, 70, retired in 2012 after a high-flying career as a civil servant, having served as a senior official in the former British colonial administration and as financial secretary.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said the charges related to a rental deal for a penthouse flat in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and the nomination of an architect doing design work on the flat for a government award.
Public resentment toward him had centred on reports of lavish spending on overseas duty visits, along with taking trips with tycoons by private jet and luxury yacht and accepting a sweetheart rental deal for the Shenzhen flat.
The charges come less than a week after Tsang appeared at a high-profile National Day reception in Hong Kong on Oct 1, standing in the front row of dignitaries, and a recent visit to Beijing to attend a military parade.
The perennially bow tie-wearing Tsang found himself in hot water at the twilight of his career amid controversy over his links with wealthy businessmen.
A series of scandals ensnaring powerful Hong Kong officials have tarnished the city's reputation.
The case comes less than a year after Hong Kong property tycoon Thomas Kuok and the government's former deputy leader Rafael Hui were jailed for graft, after Hui was found guilty of taking bribes from Kwok and Kwok's brother Raymond.
In December, Hui was sentenced to 71/2 years' jail for his role in the high-profile graft case involving Hong Kong developer Sun Hung Kai Properties.
While serving as chief secretary for administration, Hui was Tsang's deputy from 2005 to 2007. Hui is the highest-ranking official in the city's history to be found guilty of taking bribes.
Prosecutors said Hui had enjoyed an extravagant standard of living that far outstripped his official salary. He was accused of receiving HK$34 million to be the Kuoks' "eyes and ears" in government.
Tsang, the once-popular, church-going son of a policeman, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his distinguished public service under the British colonial administration.
His close links with the former British colonial government created some unease in Beijing and among pro-Beijing elements in the Hong Kong community.
Before retiring in 2012, Tsang tearfully apologised for his "personal mishandling of matters, in shaking public confidence in Hong Kong's (civil service) to be incorrupt and honest in performing one's duties".
Hong Kong has been seen as relatively graft-free. But new cases in the semi-autonomous Chinese city have fuelled public suspicions over cosy links between authorities and business leaders.
Concerns have also been raised about the role of the Chinese system of personal connections, or "guanxi", which greases the wheels of business.
"The ICAC has been criticised for dragging its feet over the Donald Tsang case, so it's a way to improve the ICAC's image that they are picking on what the Chinese call the 'big tigers'," said political analyst Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "But there are still cases pending."
There are questions over why a complaint lodged with the ICAC against current leader Leung Chun Ying has not progressed, said Dr Lam. That case relates to a payment to Mr Leung of HK$50 million by an Australian firm just before he took office.
The fact that the ICAC is overseen by the Chief Executive has also raised concerns, added Dr Lam, who said any prosecutions would likely have been sanctioned by Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a wide-ranging anti-corruption drive on the mainland.
"One theory is that Beijing wants to demonstrate that it is in charge of Hong Kong... they have decided to come down hard on the former chief executive," said Dr Lam.