Yoo Byung-eon, the owner of the sunken Sewol ferry's operator, is suspected of lobbying politicians or government officials by providing them with premium golf clubs as a kickback, prosecutors said Monday.
According to the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office, Yoo, former chairman of the now-defunct Semo Group, allegedly used one of his in-laws as a lobbying activity channel.
The allegation included that the person in question, a company chief, reportedly purchased some 100 golf clubs, together worth 5 billion won (S$6.1 million), at a store in Seoul between 2007 and 2010.
The prosecution recently raided the person's residence and the golf equipment retailer to seize a variety of documents such as accounting records, hard disks and golf club sales records.
While the prosecution grilled Yoo's in-law and the golf store owner via a summons, both of them reportedly denied the allegation.
Nonetheless, the prosecution has not ruled out the possibility that the golf clubs were given as bribes to high-profile officials in politics, government ministries and financial authorities.
The investigation is also looking into the allegation that Yoo and his close confidants stashed away assets of Semo Group after intentionally inducing the group to financial insolvency in 1997, and then buying back core subsidiaries including automobile and shipbuilding firms.
Ex-senior policymakers or lawmakers could have been implicated in the group management's asset repurchasing process, according to prosecutors.
There are speculations that Semo Group had cozy relations with former President Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a coup in 1979.
Yoo and his friendly powers have also been suspected of offering kickbacks to financial regulatory officials in exchange for garnering financial firms' approval of huge loans.
The Financial Supervisory Service said commercial banks and other secondary financial firms issued combined loans worth 400 billion won to Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ill-fated Sewol ferry, and dozens of its affiliates.
The prosecution is also looking into the allegation that Yoo had sought influence in the process of revising the nation's shipping act.
Chonghaejin Marine Co. was established in 1999 to replace Semo Marine Co., then the flagship unit of Semo Group.
Chonghaejin Marine acquired ships and other assets held by Semo Marine Co. and Yoo's two sons secured ownership of Chonghaejin through a sort of cross-shareholding.