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Hong Kong tycoon’s 20 million went into Ao’s pocket
The Hong Kong tycoon who made a successful bid for an underpriced piece of land near the Macau International Airport told the court he paid HKD 20 million to the contractor who introduced him to the corrupt ex-secretary Ao Man Long, whose shell company was found to have netted the money in the end. However the businessman denied bribing the disgraced ex-official to secure the land, which is estimated to have generated HKD 20 to 30 billion in profit.
Steven Lo, the former owner of Moon Ocean, which successfully bid for the five land plots opposite the Macau International Airport in 2005, testified as a witness in the Macau Court of Final Appeal last Friday, saying that he was told by the real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle in mid 2005 that the land was available for sale, and the profit was expected to be high due to the robust development of the gaming industry which stimulated vigorous growth in the property market.
Lo contacted another Hong Kong businessman, Joseph Lau, the chairman and CEO of the listed real estate developer Chinese Estates Holdings, about cooperating on the project. Lo told the court that after Jones Lang LaSalle successfully bid for the land on behalf of Moon Ocean, which was later purchased by Joseph Lau, the two businessmen decided to award the construction project to the Macau contractor San Meng Fai Construction Company, owned by Ho Meng Fai who was dubbed “King of Construction” due to his prominent status and dominance in the industry.
It was Ho who introduced Steven Lo and Joseph Lau to the then Secretary for Transport and Public Works, Ao Man Long, and the four men met “once or twice” in Macau, according to Lo. “Joseph and I came here [to Macau] for leisure,” Lo told the court, “and suddenly Ho called me to see if we were interested in meeting Ao.”
“As far as I can remember, we met once or twice only, but we only talked about Macau cuisine, places to have fun, and perhaps the development of tourism.” Asked by the prosecutor if they mentioned the tender of the land during their meeting, Lo categorically denied it: “We didn’t even know that he [Ao] was responsible for the sale of land, and we didn’t exchange business cards or contact numbers.”
When challenged by the judge about whether the parties met at the Golden Dragon Hotel in Macau on 22 June 2005, days before the lands were sold to Moon Ocean, Lo said he could not remember clearly, adding that they did meet once in the nearby Waldo Hotel, on a date he could not recall. Again, he stressed that they only talked about eating and other casual topics. But the judge raised doubts over the “coincidence” that the former strangers from business, construction, and political sectors could congregate so suddenly, just as a land tender arose.
The cheque for HKD 20 million, issued by Chinese Estates Holdings, which was found to have gone to a shell company controlled by Ao, gave rise to further doubts. If the businessmen had bribed officials to tamper with the tender procedure and secure the land at MOP 1.36 billion, which was estimated to be hundreds of million patacas lower than market value, should the lands be sold at better market conditions under proper procedures.
Lo said the cheque was actually given to Ho Meng Fai to settle an urgent payment for marble stones, and it was deposited directly into the bank account of the construction material supplier. Lo claimed to be ignorant of the fact that the money was found by an investigator to have ended up in the account of Ecolina Property Limited, a shell company controlled by Ao.
Lo suggested that the episode was caused by negligence in payments and careless accounting. Ho Meng Fai jumped bail years ago and is still on the international wanted list. “Now that he [Ho] has fled, I don’t know how to claim my money back,” Lo told the court.
In response to prosecutor’s suspicions over Jones Lang LaSalle’s bidding document that included detailed surveying and 3D graphics of the land, which was well prepared despite the fact that the bidding period was unusually short (just 10 days), Lo said these documents could be prepared in one or two days “by copying information from others” and that the most important element in the document was the bidding price, which was filled by him personally at the last moment due to secrecy considerations.
Tony Lo, the Jones Lang LaSalle agent who informed Steven Lo and Joseph Lau on the tender, also testified in court last Friday, saying that he knew about the tender from other property brokers and denied allegations that he had asked the government for the sale of the land on behalf of Steven Lo and Joseph Lau. Tony Lo also said ten days were enough to prepare the bidding documents, rebutting allegations that the company knew of the tender before it was formally announced and prepared the documents sooner that other bidders.
Steven Lo said he spent HKD 700 - 800 million on the project under Moon Ocean and later sold the company to Lau at HKD 1.6 billion. The land has now been developed into the luxury residence, La Scala, which is expected to bring profit of HKD 20 to 30 billion.
After leaving court, the tycoon stressed to the media that he believed he would not become a defendant and he was also eager to find out the facts of this case.
Joseph Lau was also asked by the court to testify as witness but he refused; the prosecutor decided to give up further initiatives to bring him to the witness stand. On Saturday, the South China Morning Post reported that Joseph Lau and Steven Lo are involved in another investigation about business activities in Macau.
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