Disgraced former Hong Kong minister Patrick Ho Chi-ping is expected to be sent to a minimum security prison after a US court sentenced him to three years in jail and fined him US$400,000 (HK$3.1 million) over a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving top African leaders.
But Ho, 69, who delivered a tearful apology before the sentencing in a New York federal court, could be released as early as June next year. This was because Ho’s 16 months in custody was deducted, while his legal team predicted his jail term could be reduced by another five months for good behaviour.
“I tried very hard to transform my despair into something meaningful,” Ho told US District Judge Loretta Preska. “I accept full responsibility. I am deeply sorry.
“Please accept this token [of] respect and gratitude,” Ho said, head bowed, at the end of his remarks, which included details of the community work he did at New York’s Manhattan Correctional Centre, helping other inmates by giving classes in English, résumé writing and public speaking.
Ho also recalled the pain of not being with his wife and 92-year-old mother.
“My wife lost her own mother and [I] wasn’t there to hold her hand,” a tearful Ho said. “I pray every day that my mum will live a long life so she will see her son coming back.”
His lawyer Edward Kim said the defence team was satisfied with the results, adding they had not decided whether to appeal, but were filing an appeals notice to preserve the ability to challenge the ruling.
The prosecution previously proposed a five-year jail term for Ho, whose bribery and money laundering charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Veteran criminal defence lawyer Robert Precht, who is not involved in the case, said that, based on the court’s leniency regarding Ho and the nature of his white-collar crime, Ho would likely be placed in a minimum- or low-security prison, the lowest of the four levels in the US.
Former prosecutor Patrick Sinclair echoed this, saying that, given Ho’s age and the nature of the crime, “in all likeliness he would be sent to a minimum-security prison, with medical facilities”.
Ho and the presiding judge will be able to request which prison they prefer, although the final say will rest with the US Bureau of Prisons.
In a minimum-security facility, several inmates share a room in a dormitory. Paid work is available in some jails, where inmates can choose to make clothing, electronics, furniture or recycled products. Family members are allowed to visit for at least four hours per month.
Ho will be sent back to Hong Kong after serving his sentence in the US. While he could apply to serve the time in Hong Kong, his legal team said they did not expect to do so. It is rare for such a practice to be allowed: in the past two decades, only three Hongkongers convicted in the US were granted the right to serve the remainder of the sentence in their hometown.
Ho, a long-time Beijing loyalist, served as Hong Kong’s home affairs minister from 2002 to 2007, and later became deputy secretary general of a think tank funded by Shanghai-based oil conglomerate CEFC China Energy.
His role centred on advocating the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global trade strategy.
He was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in November 2017. Last December, a federal jury found him guilty on seven of eight counts of bribery and money laundering over oil rights for CEFC in Chad and Uganda.
Ho was found to have offered US$2.9 million in bribes to Chad President Idriss Déby, Senegalese diplomat Cheikh Gadio and Uganda’s foreign minister, Sam Kutesa.
He remained defiant in the face of the charges. Shortly after his arrest in 2017, he claimed he was being used to “get to the big tiger”, and asked a friend to seek help from the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.
After being found guilty, he said he was “the first of the sacrificial lambs of such hostility”.
Apart from China’s strategic expansion into Africa through private companies such as CEFC, the case also raised eyebrows over UN governance, with three officials linked.
Two former UN General Assembly presidents were suspected of receiving bribes in the case – one has since died after being sued, and another was never prosecuted – while Vuk Jeremic, also a former General Assembly president, testified at Ho’s trial.
Jeremic said in court that after his UN term, he received funding from CEFC to set up a think tank.
In a statement, Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general and head of the US Department of Justice’s criminal division, said Ho’s bribing of leaders in Chad and Uganda in exchange for oil rights “undermines world markets and tilts the playing field against law-abiding companies and individuals”.
Although Ho’s think tank was primarily Hong Kong-based with a relatively less-known US subsidiary, Benczkowski, who was nominated by US President Donald Trump, said Ho had used the US division to conceal the criminal acts, and pledged the department would continue to prosecute those engaged in foreign bribery.
Ho’s friends in Hong Kong found the relatively light sentence a relief.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s delegate to China’s top legislature, described it as “seeing light at the end of the tunnel”, while ophthalmologist Dennis Lam Shun-chiu said he was gratified that the judge had imposed a sentence lower than the five years sought by the prosecution.
“There are ups and downs in life, to Patrick this must be a serious blow,” Lam told Cable TV. “But this sentence means he’ll bounce back.”
The conviction could mean the revocation of Ho’s Hong Kong civic honours awarded by the previous administration. These include the title of Justice of the Peace, given in 1999, and the Golden Bauhinia Star he received in 2007 – the second-highest medal handed out by the government.
According to practice, if a recipient is convicted of a crime and faces a jail term of more than a year, the chief executive can rescind the award.
The government’s Protocol Division would not comment.