An independent inquiry panel criticized Hong Kong's government Monday for overpaying performers and failing to understand and supervise a music festival last year which included the Rolling Stones and

An independent inquiry panel criticized Hong Kong's government Monday for overpaying performers and failing to understand and supervise a music festival last year which included the Rolling Stones and Santana, but ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The harshly-worded report comes as the Beijing-backed government is suffering a confidence crisis and is certain to exacerbate its already low standing with the public.

Financial secretary Henry Tang apologized just minutes after the report was released on the Internet, but made clear that the government would not bear responsibility alone.

"It's not just government departments but all concerned parties, including Amcham (the American Chamber of Commerce) and other parties. They all have inadequacies and responsibility," Tang told reporters.

He added that the government would study the report and see if it needed to take action against any official.

The Harbour Fest was conceived and organized by Amcham soon after the deadly SARS crisis last year and was aimed at reviving local confidence and bringing back tourists to the epidemic-scarred territory. The government quickly agreed to underwrite $12.8 million of the project - which also starred acts like the Gipsy Kings, Santana and Jose Carreras - with taxpayers' money.

But the festival ended up playing night after night to half-empty venues. People were also angry with corporate "freebies" and the last minute cancellation of several acts.

According to the inquiry report, the event cost a total of HK$155.8 million ($19.97 million), with taxpayers footing all of the nearly HK $100 million ($12.82 million) that the government agreed to underwrite.

The inquiry panel said the government had paid too much trust in Amcham and had failed to realize that the chamber had little experience with organizing concerts.

"The panel concludes that (the government) approved the Harbour Fest project without adequate assessment," it said.

Entertainers were overpaid and financial control was not transparent, it added.

"The system of financial control was inadequate and open to abuse as it lacked appropriate checks and balances, particularly in relation to the control of authorization of expenditure," it said, but fell short of specifying if there was any actual abuse.

"There appears to have been some degree of overpayment to most of the Western artists for performing at the Harbour Fest."

Tang said lessons must be learned from the experience, which has deeply embarrassed the administration.

"With hindsight, both the (government) working group and Amcham have underestimated the complexity of organizing the Harbour Fest and we have overestimated its benefits," said Tang, who added that he had overall responsibility.

"We express our deepest disappointment and our regret. We will certainly learn from the experience," he said.

--Reuters