Special probe into Choi scandal kicks off

Special probe into Choi scandal kicks off
Choi is suspected of working with her associates, President Park and former presidential aides to meddle in state affairs, interfere in the operations of companies for personal gains and coerce conglomerates to make donations to organisations related to her, which investigators suspect were essentially bribes that might be connected to the president herself.
PHOTO: Reuters

The independent counsel looking into the corruption scandal surrounding South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil wrapped up its 20 days of preparation Tuesday, kicking off its official investigation in tandem with Park's impeachment trial.

The special team led by independent counsel Park Young-soo said it would hold a ceremony to hang up its signboard Wednesday, symbolically launching its probe into the series of accusations that has left the South Korean leader on the brink of being forced out of office.

Choi is suspected of working with her associates, President Park and former presidential aides to meddle in state affairs, interfere in the operations of companies for personal gains and coerce conglomerates to make donations to organisations related to her, which investigators suspect were essentially bribes that might be connected to the president herself.

The prosecution's biggest accusation against the president was the abuse of authority, but independent counsel Park has said that adopting such an approach "has many holes," indicating that he will look into the bribery charges.

An official from the special team told local media that the investigators may look into President Park's bank transactions related to the bribery charges.

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Even prior to the official launch of the probe, the independent counsel team appeared to be looking into the charges as it reportedly contacted high-ranking officials from Samsung Group.

Samsung is among major Korean companies embroiled in the bribery charges, with the company suspected of providing 2.2 billion won ($18.5 million) of support to Choi's family in the form of contracts with her company.

The company is also the biggest benefactor of the Mir and K-Sports foundations, two nonprofit organisations which authorities suspect to have served as a cover for channeling public funds to Choi.

Samsung Electronics' Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of the conglomerate, has denied both the allegations and being closely acquainted with Choi.

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"The pre-arranged meeting (with Samsung officials) was conducted as part of preparation for the investigation. We will decide whether or not to reveal the details after the investigation begins," said an official from the investigative team.

He said that his team contacted less than 10 people related to the scandal, but declined to elaborate.

Korean media outlet Maeil Daily on Tuesday reported that the independent counsel team is set to summon Chang Choong-ki, deputy head of Samsung's Strategic Planning, as a suspect in the bribery charges.

Read also: Friend of South Korea's Park chooses to appear to "get fair trial"

Investigators refused to confirm if Chang and other Samsung officials were investigated as persons of interest or suspects.

Park's team has already barred Samsung's Vice Chairman Lee from leaving the country.

Independent counsel Park is also expected to target the president's former aides, including ex-Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and her former Senior Secretary Woo Byung-hoo.

The two are among former Cheong Wa Dae officials suspected of knowingly condoning or helping Choi with her wrongdoings.

Woo, who has vowed to finally appear at Thursday's parliamentary hearing, is suspected to have interfered in investigation related to the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, one of the nation's worst maritime disasters, which left 304 dead or missing.

It is a key factor in the allegations surrounding President Park, as she is suspected of having taken inappropriate actions during her unexplained seven-hour absence in the wake of the accident.

"We are aware of the relevant information (on Woo). But it is not appropriate to say whether or not we will investigate the matter, since it is simply a suspicion as of now," said an official from the investigative team.

Choi accused of interfering in state affairs using relationship with President

The special team has vowed to leave no stone unturned in the investigation, saying that a raid on Cheong Wa Dae itself was "not out of question."

The presidential office told local media Tuesday that it has yet to receive a request from the team, but is preparing for it.

It had refused the prosecution's earlier request to raid the office.

Litigations related to the scandal also kicked off this week.

Choi, who is at the centre of the scandal, appeared at court Wednesday and denied all allegations.

The Constitutional Court announced Tuesday that it would hold its first official preliminary for President Park's impeachment Thursday, during which the legal representatives of parliament -- which passed the motion for impeachment on Dec. 9 -- and Park will face off for the first time.

Read also: Special probe, litigation on Choi to begin

The court will also decide whether to accept the president's objection to the requests by the independent counsel and the prosecution on files related to the Choi scandal.

Park had claimed that it is illegal to ask for files related to an ongoing investigation.

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