Two of Hong Kong's richest businessmen were on Friday charged with bribing a former public official, in a case which has stunned the close-knit local business community and tarnished Hong Kong's reputation as one of Asia's least corrupt cities.
Thomas and Raymond Kwok, brothers and joint chairmen of Asia's largest property developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, were charged by the Independent Commission Against Corruption with conspiracy to offer advantages to a public servant, Rafael Hui.
Sun Hung Kai said the two men would remain as chairmen. At a press conference called by the company late on Friday night both brothers denied the charges against them.
Mr. Hui, who was retained as a special adviser to Sun Hung Kai before becoming chief secretary to the Hong Kong government in 2005, was charged with misconduct in public office. He was the second-most senior member of the government as chief secretary until 2007. The Kwok brothers and Mr Hui were first arrested by the anti-corruption agency on March 26, and were released on bail without charges.
Thomas Chan, an executive director at Sun Hung Kai, and Francis Kwan, a former senior executive at the Hong Kong stock exchange, were also charged on Friday.
All five appeared in a magistrate's court to hear the charges and were granted bail until October 12, when they are next due to appear in court.
They were not asked to enter a plea, but Raymond Kwok said as he left: "I believe in the fairness of the Hong Kong justice system and that it will prove my innocence."
Walter Kwok, former chairman of the company who was ousted by his younger brothers in 2008, was also arrested in May by the ICAC, but his name was not included on the list of people charged on Friday.
According to Thomas Kwok's barrister, Walter's name was also not included in the list of prosecution witnesses.
The charges which relate to the period between June 2000 and January 2009 include allegations that Mr. Hui received about $34-million (Hong Kong or $4.4-million U.S.) in payment and unsecured loans from the four defendants as well as the use of two adjoining luxury apartments in a Sun Hung Kai development.
The Kwok brothers are accused by the ICAC of "conspiring" with Mr. Hui for the latter to be "favourably disposed to" their interests while in public office in return for the financial benefits.
The charges do not suggest that any Sun Hung Kai project benefited directly from Mr Hui's decisions while in government.
The arrests of the Kwok brothers and Mr. Hui fuelled public anger at the perception that public officials had increasingly failed to distance themselves from local tycoons. The ICAC is conducting a separate investigation into Donald Tsang, the previous chief executive of Hong Kong, who had to apologise to the public earlier this year for accepting unsuitable favours from wealthy businessmen, such as free trips on their private jets and luxury yachts.
Mr. Tsang denies breaking any law.
Sun Hung Kai Properties shares were suspended on Friday. They had lost about 16 per cent of their value since the March arrests. The company recently added a number of non-family members to its executive committee, which analysts said was a move to prepare for a new leadership team to be installed.