Like David Rockefeller in the US and a succession of Rothschilds in Europe, David Li (李國寶) has long received the accolades that come to aristocratic bankers who combine wealth, political influence and public service.
Li is a Cabinet official in Hong Kong, a senior member of the legislature and the chairman and chief executive of the Bank of East Asia (東亞銀行), the flagship of the Li family's business empire. And he has been leading Hong Kong's recent campaign to establish itself as Asia's main financial center.
So it has been all the more surprising that US regulators are expected to examine whether Li had any role in the possible leak of confidential information to a Hong Kong couple accused of making millions of dollars from insider trading of shares in Dow Jones.
Li, a longtime director of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and has denied leaking any information about a pending bid by News Corp for Dow Jones. But people close to Dow Jones said that the company had opened an internal review of his actions, in a case that highlights the dangers that accompany the perks of being a company director.
The case has now expanded beyond the Dow Jones review, as both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the attorney general for New York State are investigating trading in Dow Jones stock and options in the days before the News Corp bid was made public.
In a court filing in New York on Tuesday, the SEC accused Kan King Wong (王敬景) and Charlotte Ka On Wong Leung (王梁家安) of making US$8.2 million from a "highly suspicious" pattern of trading. Wong is the daughter of Michael Leung (梁啟雄), a longtime business associate and charity board ally of Li. According to the court filing, some of the couple's stock purchases were financed by US$3.1 million transferred by Leung.
The SEC gave no indication of how the couple might have learned about the purchase and did not mention Li. Dow Jones and News Corp both have operations in Hong Kong, while at least six banks and law firms in the US are advising the two companies, creating many possibilities for leaks.
Hong Kong's prominence in the Dow Jones stock inquiry could hurt the city's attempts to shake its reputation for financial regulations that are weaker than the West's although stronger than in most of Asia. The inquiry could also hurt the effort by Hong Kong, championed by Li, to become Asia's dominant financial center.
The 68-year-old Li is a leading member of one of the most prominent families in business and politics in Hong Kong, where family connections are crucial. Li's brother, Arthur Li (李國章), is Hong Kong's education secretary and a Cabinet official; their cousin, Andrew Li (李國能), is the chief justice of Hong Kong's highest court.
One of David Li's uncles, Ronald Li (李福兆), was once the chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Another uncle, Simon Li (李福善), is a former judge who also ran an unsuccessful campaign to be appointed Hong Kong's chief executive in 1996.
The Li family has one of Hong Kong's most aristocratic lineages. David Li's great-grandfather, Li Shek-tang (李石朋), grew wealthy as a rice mill and shipping magnate, bringing rice to Hong Kong from Vietnam. David Li's grandfather, Li Koon-chun (李冠春), was a founder of the Bank of East Asia in 1918, the first bank in Hong Kong not owned by immigrants from Britain.
"Looking at the Li family, they just produce so many people involved in so many things over generations, and I don't see any other Hong Kong family that can match this," said Frank Ching (秦家驄), a local columnist who wrote a book about the family entitled Li Dynasty.
While it is unclear if Li was the source of the leak, he is known to have social and business ties to Leung, the father of one of the people currently under scrutiny.
Leung is a director of the board of the Bank of East Asia (Canada) and a director of the bank's insurance unit, Blue Cross (Asia Pacific) Insurance. Leung is also a member of the supervisory board of the Chinese operations of the Bank of East Asia.
When the Bank of East Asia bought the holding company of First Pacific Bank in 2001, Leung was one of three directors chosen by the Bank of East Asia to help oversee a merger of the two financial institutions.
Leung, a 64-year-old former social worker who became a textiles and logistics entrepreneur in the 1970s and 1980s, has also been the vice chairman since 1982 of St James Settlement, a social welfare charity. Li is the charity's chairman, and the younger of his two sons, Brian, is also on the charity's executive committee.
Today, Leung is retired though he still has his hands in various business interests. He has also remained an active investor, discussing his trading strategies last month with the Sing Tao Daily, a Chinese business-oriented newspaper. Leung told the newspaper that he liked to buy new stocks and sell them quickly for a profit, and that when he found a new stock that interested him, he would advise family members to invest.
Leung "would call a family meeting with his children, son-in-law, mother and even his girlfriend -- nine people in all -- so they could buy big together," the newspaper reported.
Leung and his daughter and son-in-law all have unlisted numbers and could not be reached for comment.
Li declined through a spokeswoman to comment but in an interview on Tuesday night with the Wall Street Journal he denied that he leaked information to anyone.
Li has used his connections in Beijing to push for Hong Kong to be built up as a financial center to rival Tokyo and Singapore. He has contended that Shanghai cannot be a strong contender because the rule of law is less clear there than in Hong Kong, and because mainland China still has many capital controls.
"If we do not act now, inertia will set in and business will gravitate to established financial centers overseas," he warned in January.
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