The main contractor in a construction scandal involving Hong Kong’s most expensive rail project was on Monday accused of offering money to silence a whistle-blower and cover up two irregularities in its work.
Details of the allegation were aired at a high-level inquiry as informant Jason Poon Chuk-hung gave evidence for the sixth day. The judge-led probe is investigating shoddy work on Hong Kong’s HK$97.1 billion (US$12.3 billion) Sha Tin-Central link.
Poon said engineering firm Leighton Contractors (Asia) had asked him to help cover up two cases of substandard construction.
The managing director of subcontractor China Technology Corporation had been hired by Leighton to carry out concreting work at Hung Hom station.
Leighton is also embroiled in allegations that steel bars were cut short to fake proper installation into couplers on the station platform, and that supporting diaphragm walls were changed without authorisation.
On Monday Poon contended that Leighton owed him more than HK$17 million by September 2016. In January last year the firm offered him a cheque for HK$6 million as part payment, but on two conditions, he said.
“One condition was that we should not make any reference to the cutting of rebars because the company’s position was that they would not admit to this incident,” the whistle-blower told the inquiry.
The second condition was that Poon’s firm cooperate with Leighton regarding a fatal incident in November 2016 at the Liantang-Heung Yuen Wai boundary control point between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
A steel platform had collapsed at the border crossing causing one death and leaving three injured. Leighton was later fined HK$100,000 for breaching safety regulations at the construction site.
But Poon eventually rejected the offer because a cover-up could have affected his company’s chances of listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange, he said.
“China Technology was trying to list at the time, and if we were to have cooperated regarding this fatality, we might have never been able to list,” Poon said.
The whistle-blower earlier also alleged that Leighton had wilfully carried out substandard work to overcome technical installation problems encountered by another subcontractor, Fang Sheung Construction. Leighton had provided labour for the job between May 2015 and September 2017, Poon said.
He estimated that about 1,000, or 5 per cent, of the steel bars on the platform had been defective, and many couplers were damaged.
But inquiry chairman Michael Hartmann, a former non-permanent judge on Hong Kong’s top court, asked if Poon had any direct evidence to support these claims.
“You suggested the cutting of steel bars was systematic and planned. And you said there was a corrupt motive of cutting corners … but you have no direct evidence of this?” Hartmann said.
Poon admitted he did not, but said he had arrived at his view after reviewing all the available photos as well as a similar irregularity at Hung Hom station’s North Approach Tunnel, where defective steel bars were also found.
He argued that the top of a diaphragm wall had been chiselled into an “A” shape, with the rebar on top dangling loose, which in his view had compromised the wall’s structural safety.
“There were two major deviations from the original design. It became a totally different concept in terms of structure,” Poon said.
“I did ask Leighton staff why it was in such a state, but they said it was the version made after plans had been changed.”
The hearing continues.