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Day 72: May 8, 2024

The Witness: Live Update | Day 72 of the Jimmy Lai Trial: Royston Chow Tat-kuen Confirms Involvement in Managing Lai’s Personal Account

Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai and three related companies of Apple Daily are charged with “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces” and other crimes. The case proceeded to its 72nd day of trial on Wednesday (8th) at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts (acting as the High Court). Witness for the prosecution, Royston Chow Tat-kuen, then COO and former CFO of Next Digital, testified for the second day. The prosecution continued to inquire about the operations of companies under Jimmy Lai, and Chow confirmed that he was involved in managing Lai’s personal account.

Chow confirmed on Tuesday that he and Lai were directors of the offshore company “LACOCK”. By early 2020, Chan Tsz-wah became a new shareholder and director of the company, although Chow did not know Chan personally. Lai’s assistant, Mark Simon, had explained to him that “because Chan Tsz-wah has been helpful and effective in assisting Mr. Lai, Mr. Lai transferred the company to him as a reward.”

The case is presided over by High Court judges designated under the National Security Law: Esther Toh Lye-ping, Susana Maria D’Almada Remedios, and Alex Lee Wan-tang. Representing the prosecution are Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Chau Tin-hang, Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions Ivan Cheung Cheuk-kan, and Senior Public Prosecutor Crystal Chan Wing-sum; Jimmy Lai is represented by Senior Counsel Robert Pang Yiu-hung, barrister Steven Kwan, and Marc Corlett, a New Zealand King’s Counsel with a Hong Kong practice license.

15:40 Court Adjourns

15:17 Prosecution Completes Direct Examination

The prosecution displayed the “Combined Cash Flow Statement” from April 1, 2019, to October 31, 2019, which Chow stated was prepared by Linda, “to let Mr. Lai know about his income-related expenses and show the status of all private company bank accounts at the end.” During the session, an item in the record stated “Chan Tsz Wah – sponsorship for exhibition $14.4k.” The prosecution asked what this was. According to the record, Chow responded, “It’s sponsorship for his exhibition,” but he did not know the details.

The prosecution completed their direct examination. Senior Defense Barrister Robert Pang Yiu-hung noted that since the prosecution had not provided records from Apple Daily’s work platform Slack, the defense would need to retrieve them independently. Consequently, they could not question the  CEO of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, and hoped to recall Cheung Kim-hung to testify. Judge Esther Toh Lye-ping stated that she would consider the defense’s application on Thursday (9th).

14:55 Chow: “One HongKonger, One Letter” to Trump Would Attract “A Lot of Attention”

The prosecution displayed a message from May 13, 2020, where Lai sent Chow a link to a crowdfunding website called “US Supporting Apple Daily,” stating, “Anna contacted me, I gave them the rate after speaking with our ad department. Now they put an ad up that lets everybody our discount. (So I just tell everybody it’s subsidized).”

Lai added, “Does this crowdfunding campaign come from Simon Lee and his friends? Great idea! We can use the same channel for our US subscription effort. Thanks.”

Chow responded, “Copy that. I will look into it and come back to you. We also have the American Apple Supports Apple plan and subscription vouchers and will start work immediately. Thanks,” and “Hi Boss, this one is not coming from Simon Lee. Thanks!”

The prosecution asked what the mentioned crowdfunding was. Chow said, “I think I actually didn’t know at the time, I needed some time to get back (to Lai),” later clarifying about the “American Apple Supports Apple plan” that “I asked other colleagues, then I replied it was not initiated by Simon Lee.” Chow continued, stating it was not a company-organized plan, and he did not click the link to read further.

Judge Alex Lee Wan-tang asked, “Who is Simon Lee?” Chow identified him as the Simon Lee (李兆富) who had previously worked for Apple Daily, “Afterwards, I understand he also helped Mr. Lai,” but was unclear about his actual work.

The prosecution then displayed a message about the “One Hongkonger One Letter to Save Hong Kong” initiative. Lai said, “Paper letters with the Apple logo will definitely be printed and reported by the media, which will help us promote American subscriptions to Apple,” to which Chow replied, “I will follow up immediately.” The prosecution asked what he meant by following up. Chow answered, “I suppose I then contacted Cheung Kim-hung and the printing plant to prepare to print this letter.”

The prosecution asked why the “One Hongkonger One Letter” initiative would help promote American subscriptions to Apple Daily. Chow said, “If you send one letter each to Trump, that would create a big noise and attract a lot of attention, thereby hoping more people will subscribe to Apple Daily.”

14:48 Chow: Mark Simon’s Year-End Bonus Provided Privately by Lai

The prosecution displayed a WhatsApp conversation from December 10, 2019, between Chow and Lai, where Chow stated, “Boss, hello, below are Mark Simon’s past four years of year-end bonuses for your reference:

1 2015 US$200,000

2 2016 US$250,000

3 2017 US$300,000

4 2018 US$200,000″

Lai replied, “Same as last year US$200,000 Thanks. Jimmy.”

In court, Chow explained that the year-end bonuses were not provided by Next Digital to Mark Simon, but personally by Lai, although he couldn’t remember from which account, “I understand the bonus is for your work well done.” Chow further mentioned, “Because I received instructions to give this bonus, it wasn’t specified whether it was for work at Next Digital or for something personally done with Mr. Lai, my understanding is the bonus is for your good work throughout the year, so he gave this bonus.”

Chow continued, saying that after receiving the message from Lai, he forwarded it to Linda, who handled the payment, emphasizing that the related checks were signed by Lai.

14:33 Prosecution Questions About “Summer of Freedom” Special Edition

The prosecution continued to inquire about the “Summer of Freedom” special edition, noting that the Chinese version was published on September 20, 2019, and the English version on October 9, 2019; Chow confirmed. The prosecution asked if the publication was distributed. Chow responded, “My understanding is that it was sold,” and the publication was also an art book, “documenting what they considered police brutality, attracting readers, and wanting to bolster more support.”

The prosecution asked if the “Summer of Freedom” was distributed overseas. Chow said, “I remember I wasn’t directly involved in the overseas distribution, but I recall Mark Simon asking me for over two thousand copies,” including both the Chinese and English editions for overseas distribution, “My understanding is that the foreign countries he referred to were places like the USA and UK,” but Mark Simon did not specify which organizations they were distributed to.

Judge Esther Toh Lye-ping asked why the English version of the publication stated “profits after costs donated to the 612 Humanitarian Fund” and why this wasn’t indicated in the Chinese version. Chow was unsure but mentioned, “The decision could have been made by Mr. Lai or the CEO,” and he remembered that the net proceeds from both the Chinese and English editions were donated to the 612 Humanitarian Fund.

12:40 Court adjourns for lunch.

12:30 Chow: Apple Daily’s English Version Aimed to Attract Foreign Support

The prosecution asked how the online version of Apple Daily attracted more attention. Chow mentioned that during the “Lunchbox Meetings,” it was discussed to report more on anti-government protests and protesters, “to generate more sympathy for them, primarily through videos.” Chow added that he started participating in the “Lunchbox Meetings” as COO from September and October 2019 until early December 2020.

Regarding his involvement with Apple Daily’s English version, Chow stated he participated in the ICT aspects, “to make sure we could launch the English version of Apple Daily.” He explained that the CEO assigned him to manage ICT, “ensuring the timely launch of the English version of Apple Daily, monitoring progress, addressing any issues, and resolving any challenges.”

The prosecution asked what the purpose of the English version of Apple Daily was. Chow said it was to let foreign, especially American, policymakers read Apple Daily, “hoping to gain their support.” He continued, stating that due to the circumstances at the time, Lai felt foreign support was crucial for the success of the anti-government and anti-extradition bill movements, reiterating “I believe it was to attract foreign readers and support.”

12:12 Chow: “Lunchbox Meetings” Discussed Anti-Government Movements, “Black Violence”

The prosecution further inquired about the content of the “Lunchbox Meetings.” Chow first explained the format, where attendees would pose questions on WhatsApp before the meeting, and Lai usually replied, “Let’s discuss it when we meet.” Then, “During the meal, there would be discussions, and Mr. Lai would also share his views on current situations, such as the anti-government protests at the time,” and they would discuss questions raised by employees. Chow added that Lai would make decisions based on these discussions, with Cheung Kim-hung drafting meeting minutes and distributing them to attendees.

The prosecution asked what topics the Lunchbox Meetings involved. Chow noted that if related to the newspaper, “Often, the topics would be linked to the current anti-government movements and ‘black violence.’ Mr. Lai would give instructions on what actions to take, such as raising more awareness or attracting international attention,” but he was unclear about the subsequent editorial actions.

Regarding how Chow mentioned “attracting international attention,” the prosecution asked how this was achieved. Chow cited examples like launching an English version of Apple Daily, the “One Hongkonger One Letter” campaign, and the “Summer of Freedom” special edition, “That special edition had both Chinese and English versions, mainly featuring photos and illustrations about the anti-government protests. There were also some texts; I didn’t read them in detail, and the English version was a translation of the Chinese.”

The prosecution further asked what kind of attention they hoped to garner. Chow responded that it was concerning the anti-government actions in Hong Kong, “or what they call ‘police brutality,’ hoping to gain international support, or even more severely, sanctions.”

11:59 Chow: Mark Simon Has a Permanent Office in Next Digital Building

The prosecution questioned about the “Lunchbox Meetings” at Apple. Chow confirmed that from 2019 to 2020, after he became COO, he attended the “Lunchbox Meetings” hosted by Lai weekly, along with Cheung Kim-hung, and ICT Department Head Connie Chan. The prosecution asked who else attended. “Because the Lunchbox Meetings had different themes, it depends on what we were discussing at the time,” such as editors from the print edition of Apple Daily, Next Magazine, Apple Daily’s online edition, the advertising department, and business development.

Judge Esther Toh Lye-ping asked about Mark Simon’s role at Next Digital. Chow stated he did not have a formal title, “He was Mr. Lai’s personal assistant,” and Chow followed his instructions. Judge Susana Maria D’Almada Remedios asked if Mark Simon’s office was in the Next Digital building. Chow agreed, confirming he had a permanent office there and reiterated that he executed decisions for Next Digital and Lai’s private companies.

11:16 Break

10:54 Prosecution Inquires About Lai Covering Andy Li’s Newspaper Ad Costs

The prosecution displayed an email sent by Mark Simon to Linda on June 27, 2019, stating, “Linda, Please see the attachment, we are making some payments to newspaper for various advertisements as the groups cannot get their money transferred in time. I will be sending one to you shortly for payment today. We need to pay in this person’s name. Pay in name of Mr Li= LI YU HIN.”

The prosecution asked what this transaction was about. Chow explained that Mark Simon informed Linda that they needed to pay 5 million to Andy Li. The email attachment included WhatsApp conversations between Mark Simon and Lai, where Mark Simon mentioned learning from Martin that someone needed a 5 million yuan bridge loan, and that he could retrieve the funds by July 4, to which Lai responded “OK”. Regarding the advertising costs mentioned in the email, Chow said, “I understand these to be promotional advertisements.”

The prosecution asked why Mark Simon sent this email to Linda. Chow stated it was because Linda needed to issue a check or make a transfer, “Mark also needed (Lai’s) approval from Linda before proceeding,” hence the inclusion of his WhatsApp records with Lai in the email. The prosecution asked if Chow was involved. Chow replied, “I think I was not involved,” noting that he received a BCC of the email from Mark Simon only because he had to produce monthly reports on Lai’s personal expenditures and was unaware of the source of the 5 million.

The prosecution displayed an email from Mark Simon sent on June 27, 2019, to Chow, the CEO of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, and others, stating, “Guys, can you inform them that they have credit for one week and so we will run the ad. And they can pay us within one week. Mr. Lai has approved Assisting as they are having trouble moving their money” 

Chow explained that this concerned Andy Li placing an ad in the Taiwan Apple Daily, “Having received this email and seeing Mr. Lai’s approval, we gave the client a week’s credit.”

10:50 Prosecution Inquires About Lai’s Company in Taiwan

The prosecution asked if there is an offshore company named “Chartwell”? Chow agreed, understanding it to be a company under Jimmy Lai in Taiwan, but clarified that he did not manage it himself; it was handled by colleagues in Taiwan or by Mark Simon, “I actually did not participate in this company,” and he was also unclear about Mark Simon’s role in the company.

The prosecution asked how Chow knew that “Chartwell” was under Lai’s name. Chow responded, “Because I often go to Taiwan, and Mr. Lai has a team there handling his personal affairs, sometimes his private company’s colleagues would come to discuss matters, and that’s how I would find out.”

10:30 Chow Confirms Involvement in Handling Jimmy Lai’s Private Account

The prosecution presented an email from April 25, 2019, sent by Linda MENDOZA, Assistant Financial Director at Dico Consulting Limited, to Chow and Mark Simon, with a copy to employee Evan Lau. The email requested, “Kindly approve via return email the following Request For Payments from Lai Chee Ying’s SCSB USD account.”

Chow explained that Evan Lau is an accountant who reports to Linda MENDOZA or Mark Simon, and the “SCSB USD account” referred to in the email is Jimmy Lai’s personal Shanghai Commercial Savings Bank USD account. The prosecution asked about the payment request related to Mark Simon’s plan involving 2 million USD and whether Chow knew what it was about. Chow stated that if Mark Simon’s plan was approved, a payment request would be issued, “I believe Mr. Lai approved it, this is a procedure within the accounting department.”

Chow continued, “So if Linda sends me an email, it should mean that these procedures have been completed, so I would also approve it.” Judge Alex Lee Wan-tang asked why Chow’s approval was needed for Lai’s personal bank account. Chow replied, “My approval is for the payment request form,” which allows the auditors of Lai’s private company to check the records, and he followed the same procedures that were in place when he took over the job.

Judge Lee further inquired whether Chow handled not just Lai’s private company but also his personal bank accounts. Chow said, “Private company matters are handled by accountants,” and that Mark Simon’s plan had been approved by Lai, and he was just approving the related payment voucher. Chow stated that Mark Simon’s email to Linda “should have Mr. Lai’s approval.”

When asked why he said “should,” Chow replied, “Because this is a procedure the company must have, and I believe Linda would have done this work before sending this email.” He agreed there was no documentary evidence in the email but reiterated, “This is a procedure that should be there, and I believe Linda did it.”

Hearing this, Judge Lee suggested that Chow, without seeing the documents and just trusting Linda, could be considered “rubber stamping”? Chow responded, “If you put it that way, yes, but ultimately because this account is Mr. Lai’s personal account, if a cheque or remittance is issued, it has to be signed by Mr. Lai himself.” The prosecution asked who set up this procedure. Chow replied, “I don’t know who set it up, but it’s a long-standing procedure.”

Regarding Mark Simon’s plan mentioned in the email, Chow said he did not know the details, “Because if it’s Mark’s project, I don’t need to ask… Mark Simon told me Mr. Lai agreed to it.” Judge Lee asked if Chow would always trust what Mark Simon said. Chow answered, “In the past, there were other projects related to Mark that had been funded, and Mr. Lai had no objections after seeing the report, so I think he’s not lying.”

10:10 Prosecution Continues Questioning Operation of Jimmy Lai’s Company

The prosecution inquired about the Canadian company “Lais Hotel Properties Limited” under Jimmy Lai. Royston Chow Tat-kuen indicated the company, established before 2010, primarily manages Canadian hotels such as the Prince of Wales Hotel, Queen’s Landing Hotel, and Pillar and Post Hotel. The operations are unrelated to Next Digital. He, along with Mark Simon and Robert Jackson, serve as directors.

Asked who the shareholders of ‘Lais Hotel’ were, Chow mentioned a holding company above but couldn’t recall its name, believing it to be owned by Mr. Jimmy Lai. Regarding his role at “Lais Hotel,” Chow noted the company conducts a board meeting every three months, meets with auditors biannually, and holds an annual general meeting, stating he does not partake in daily operations. When asked to whom he reports, Chow said it was to the board of directors, with Mark Simon likely serving as chairman.

Chow also stated that he does not handle the company’s daily financial affairs but is informed by auditors post-meetings, after which he manages the relevant issues.

The court session started at 10:08.

The Witness

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