Skip To Main Content
“Godber’s Gone!” It was June 8, 1973, and Peter Fitzroy Godber, the Police Chief Superintendent accused of corruption, succeeded in sneaking out of Hong Kong, heading home to Britain by taking a detour through Singapore. The news about his escape buzzed through the community, causing uproar among the public that had long suffered from rampant corruption. Public confidence in the Government’s efforts to fight corruption plummeted.
People from all walks of life took to the streets, chanting slogans of “Fight corruption, arrest Godber”. To ease the furore, the then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose appointed Senior Puisne Judge Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr to form a Commission of Inquiry to look into the circumstances of Godber’s escape, and to review anti-corruption work of that time.
In October 1973, the Government adopted the Blair-Kerr Commission’s recommendations and in February 1974 established the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The ICAC was separate from the Police Force and the rest of the civil service. Among its first daunting tasks was bringing Godber, once a powerful Police Chief Superintendent, to book.
A remittance of Canadian $12,000 first raised the Police Force’s suspicion about Godber’s financial resources. Although the Police did not have any information to show that the deposit was the proceeds of corruption, the mere fact that Godber had used a pseudonym “P.F. Gedber” and conjured up a false diplomatic identity to open an account with a Canadian bank was sufficient to set in motion a Police investigation into such unusual behaviour.
The Police launched its investigation codenamed “Havana” in 1971 but made little headway. During the investigation, Godber applied for early retirement, effective from July 1973. Three months prior to that retirement date, the Commissioner of Police received intelligence alleging that Godber was incessantly remitting considerable sums of money abroad. In response, the Anti-Corruption Office launched a large-scale probe into Godber’s financial position. Within a month, 480 licensed banks in Hong Kong were contacted with a view to tracking down accounts linked to the Chief Superintendent. Initial findings showed that the credit balances of Godber’s Hong Kong accounts were close to HK$330,000 and a sum of Canadian $20,000 had just been remitted to an account he held in Canada. When Godber applied to further bring forward his retirement by one month, the Police expedited their search for evidence. They then found that in the previous five years, Godber’s deposits in Hong Kong, coupled with his remittances to Australia, Singapore, Canada and other places, amounted to more than HK$624,000 - a sum almost equivalent to the total emolument he had earned while working in the Police Force between 1952 and 1973.
At this point, a prima facie case was established, but the Police were still unable to prove that Godber’s wealth was amassed through illegal means. Nevertheless, the Police decided there was no point in delaying any longer as Godber was planning to leave Hong Kong soon for his retirement. They applied to the Commissioner of Police to suspend Godber from duty pending further investigation. And, on the advice of the Attorney-General, they cited Section 10 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance for the first time to require Godber to explain, within a week, where his financial resources had come from. On the day Godber was informed of the probe into his financial position, investigators searched Godber’s quarters and car, resulting in the seizure of three plastic writing cases, suspected of being “bribe money logbooks”, a large number of documents relating to his finances and two boxes containing dozens of silver bars.
Godber’s financial resources had suddenly become worth more than HK$4,370,000 - six times his total official income since he joined the Police Force! Considering the standard of living in Hong Kong of the early 1970s, Godber could well join the super rich club!
After searching Godber’s home and car, the Police’s next move was to be Godber’s arrest if he failed to give a satisfactory explanation of his financial affairs upon the expiry of the seven-day deadline. And to thwart any attempt to evade justice, the Police requested the Immigration Department to notify all control points at Kai Tak Airport to stop Godber from leaving the territory.
The Police would have succeeded, if not for the seven-day “vacuum period”. It had been unable to garner sufficient evidence against Godber before that June 11 deadline, so they could neither arrest him nor take any legal action. Godber, therefore, had a chance to play his “trump card”, which was a special airport security permit issued to police officers. He used the permit to circumvent immigration controls and headed for England en route Singapore on June 8. The fact that the highest-ranking corrupt police officer in the history of Hong Kong could so easily have slipped out of the territory undetected caused an explosion of pent-up grievances of the public. To placate public anger, the Government set up the ICAC to replace the Police Force’s Anti-Corruption Office. The cases already under investigation by the Police were immediately taken over by the ICAC. Among them was the Godber file - ironically, it was the case that led to the creation of the ICAC that was to be its first major case.
Having fled Hong Kong so easily, Godber was confident he could remain free. The difference in the laws of Britain and Hong Kong had convinced him that he could never be extradited from the United Kingdom on a charge of possessing “financial assets disproportionate to his official emolument” because no similar offence was stipulated in England.
Such smug calculations may have worked but for the ICAC’s persistence to unearth new evidence. The ICAC deployed a core group comprising such top officers as John Prendergast, Director of Operations, Gerald Harknett, Deputy Director of Operations and two Assistant Directors to follow up the case. The biggest problem they faced was that although there was material evidence, they were unable to find any witnesses. Mr Wong Kwok-leung, then ICAC Chief Investigator, who was involved in the pursuit of Godber, said, “We did have in our hands a lot of material evidence to prove Godber controlled a huge amount of unexplained assets. It’s just too bad that nobody was willing to come forward to testify against him. Perhaps, people were still rather conservative in those days; they’d rather choke with silent fury instead of speaking out. On the other hand, it’s also because they were unsure about the newly-formed ICAC. However, we believed time and performance could help us gain their trust.”
The breakthrough came after months of relentless effort by the ICAC. A former expatriate police superintendent, who was in prison for another bribery case, expressed his willingness to provide essential evidence relating to Godber’s corrupt activities. He said he had witnessed Godber accepting a bribe of HK$25,000 from a former Chinese superintendent for helping the latter secure the “fat job” of superintendent in the Wan Chai Police Station. The information was so important that the Director and Deputy Director of Operations were personally involved in collating this evidence and had a number of interviews with the superintendent in the prison. Based on that testimony, investigators immediately arrested the Chinese superintendent who allegedly paid for a bribe for his Wan Chai posting. With the assistance of the UK police, Godber was arrested on April 29, 1974. Subsequently, both the jailed expatriate superintendent and the Chinese superintendent became tainted witnesses, testifying against Godber.
Their testimony tallied with the material evidence collected. Among the material seized by the Police from Godber’s residence, the ICAC investigators had found two notes, in his handwriting, containing information about his resources. They showed that after that Chinese superintendent paid his bribe, Godber’s assets jumped by about HK$90,000 between May and November, 1971. This was believed to have included the $25,000 for the Wan Chai posting and other illegal payments obtained by Godber.
With these witnesses and mounting material evidence, investigators started to prepare for Godber’s extradition. Godber fought against being returned to Hong Kong to face trial, denying that he had committed the alleged offences. After several hearings, the ICAC finally won the case and obtained an extradition order from the London court, ending an eight-month court battle.
With the London court order, Godber was taken aboard a plane and escorted back to Hong Kong on January 7, 1975 under exceptionally tight security. He was ordered to face trial at the Victoria District Court on February 17. The Government, for the first time, appointed a leading counsel from UK to act as the prosecutor in the trial - demonstrating the importance being attached to this case and the Government’s determination to combat corruption.
Godber was charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of accepting a bribe. Convicted in the six-and-a-half-day trial, Godber was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment - and the HK$25,000 he took as a bribe was ordered to be confiscated.
Ti-liang Yang, who was the presiding judge in the Godber case, said, “In this case, the maximum jail terms for the two offences Godber committed were five and seven years, respectively. When meting out the sentence, consideration was given to the year he had already spent in prison in England, so the actual prison term imposed on Godber was quite close to the maximum penalty.” Godber appealed against the sentence to the Full Court of the Supreme Court in Hong Kong and subsequently to the Privy Council in London but both appeals were dismissed, landing the once prominent figure in the Police Force in jail to pay a high price for his corrupt deeds.
The ICAC later filed a writ to try to recover, through civil proceedings, the $4 million in assets suspected to be corrupt income. Despite difficulties encountered in seizing assets spread across several continents, the ICAC still has not given up the hunt for those missing millions.
Determined to plug legal loopholes identified in the course of the Godber investigation, the Government repealed the provisions concerning the period allowed for making representations on the source of income under Section 10 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. The successful conclusion of the case rebutted criticism that the ICAC would only catch flies, but not tigers. It also helped the ICAC win recognition and faith among the public. As Mr Yang remarked, this case was not only an important milestone for the Commission, but also was instrumental in restoring public confidence in the Government and the justice system.