Ex-presidential secretaries face investigation over Choi scandal

PHOTO: Reuters

South Korean prosecutors plan to summon former Presidential Secretary An Chong-bum on Wednesday on his alleged connection to the scandal that President Park Geun-hye allowed her old friend Choi Soon-sil to meddle in state affairs, officials said Tuesday.

Senior Presidential Secretary for Policy Coordination An is believed to have played a part in raising funds worth some 80 billion won (S$97 million) for Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation, which was then illegally channeled to Choi.

Choi, the daughter of Park's late mentor and cult leader Choi Tae-min, was apprehended on emergency 48-hour detention early morning on a series of suspicions that include illegal access to presidential documents, bribery and the illegal use of public funds.

Investigators are expected to request an arrest warrant Wednesday.

Jung Hyun-sik, a former secretary general of the K-Sports Foundation, told local media that An had instructed him to demand 8 billion won from SK Group.

According to data from Chaebul.com, a total of 53 corporations had donated a combined 77.4 billion won to the foundations. Hyundai Motor led the group with 6.88 billion won, followed by SK Hynix and Samsung Electronics with 6.8 billion won and 6 billion won, respectively.

But 12 companies had made contributions while reporting losses, fueling suspicions that they were pressured to make the donations.

Choi accused of interfering in state affairs using relationship with President

  • The woman at the centre of a corruption scandal that triggered the biggest political crisis for a generation in South Korea appeared in court Monday for a preliminary hearing in her trial on fraud charges.
  • It was the first public appearance since October for Choi Soon-Sil, who has been dubbed Korea’s “female Rasputin” for the influence she wielded over the now-impeached president, Park Geun-Hye.
  • Sporting black-rimmed glasses and a surgical mask that obscured her face, Choi, who has been in custody for the past seven weeks, was brought to the Seoul Central District Court in a special prison bus.
  • Television footage showed her handcuffed and wearing a blue-grey prison outfit with a serial number on the chest as she was taken off the bus and led into the court building by a female guard.
  • The 60-year-old faces trial on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power – largely related to huge “donations” made by conglomerates to two dubious foundations she controlled and allegedly plundered.
  • A long-time friend of Park’s, Choi is accused of using her leverage with the president to strong-arm the companies into handing over tens of millions of dollars.
  • Accusations that Park colluded with Choi formed the basis of an impeachment motion against the president that was passed by parliament earlier this month.
  • The motion is now being considered by the Constitutional Court which has up to 180 days to make a ruling on whether to endorse or reject the president’s ouster.
  • The last time Choi was seen in public was in late October when she attended a summons at the Seoul prosecutor’s office and famously lost a much-photographed Prada shoe in the media scrum outside the building.
  • Choi was not obliged to turn up for Monday’s hearing, which was largely procedural and focused on preparing the way for the trial proper.
  • “She has expressed a willingness to participate sincerely in the trial,” Lee was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.
  • But her lawyer, Lee Kyung-Jae, said she had volunteered to appear.
  • Choi was criticised for refusing to attend the hearings of a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal.
  • Park is also accused of ordering aides to leak confidential state documents to Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in some state affairs, including the appointment of top officials.
  • Choi Soon-sil, accused of interfering in state affairs using her relationship with President Park Geun-hye, arrived at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office building in Seoul on Monday to face questioning over her alleged influence peddling.
  • Choi, a longtime confidante and shaman-like adviser to Park, had returned to Seoul on Sunday from Europe, capping a week of turmoil that led to a massive anti-government rally over the weekend.
  • Choi, a private citizen with no position in making policy, will be investigated over allegations of taking advantage of her political ties with President Park and coercing conglomerates to donate money to two foundations she controls.
  • She is also accused of seeking academic favors from professors at Ewha Womans University for her daughter Chung Yoo-ra.

The prosecution has already raided An's home and his office in Cheong Wa Dae to look for evidence concerning the allegations.

The prosecution has stepped up its investigation into the Choi scandal, visiting eight banks with a search warrant as of Tuesday to investigate the financial transactions of those with links to the scandal.

In a bid to acquire financial transaction records of those related to the allegations, investigators visited headquarters of eight banks - Woori Bank, Standard Chartered Bank Korea, Shinhan Bank, KB Bank, KEB Hana Bank, Industrial Bank of Korea, Citibank Korea and Nonghyup Bank - to collect relevant documents.

The data requested by the prosecution includes those related to Choi and TV commercial director Cha Eun-taek, who is suspected to have played a role in founding the two aforementioned entities and interfering in several state-backed culture projects.

The sweeping search indicates that the investigators have commenced a comprehensive crackdown on the financial records of those related to the scandal.

Among the banks searched, KEB Hana Bank is suspected of granting Choi's daughter Chung Yoo-ra loans under unlawfully favourable conditions.

Rep. Jung Jae-ho of the minor opposition Minjoo Party of Korea has alleged that Chung and Choi had been granted a loan of 250,000 euros ($274,225) last year, which they supposedly used to buy real estate in Germany.

The Financial Supervisory Service is conducting investigation into the allegation, and National Tax Service chief Lim Hwang-soo told Parliament on Monday that the NTS is investigating possible tax evasions by Choi and Chung.

Prosecutors are also investigating a claim that Choi was allowed to freely enter and leave Cheong Wa Dae.

Local daily the Hankyoreh, citing officials from the presidential office, reported that Choi had frequently visited Cheong Wa Dae from 2013 until recently without going through inspection or identification process.

The gate that Choi used was reportedly one used exclusively by Cabinet members, who go through identification.

Park's former Chief of Staff Lee Wong-jong had said that it was not true "as far as I know."

The prosecution has questioned Choi's associate Ko Yeong-tae and former Cheong Wa Dae staff on the allegation, including Park's personal trainer Yoon Jeon-choo, officials said Tuesday.

It has been rumored that Yoon was able to work in the presidential office on Choi's recommendation.

When asked about the allegation, Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Jung Youn-kuk said that the presidential staff would co-operate with the investigators "the best they can."

The presidential office Sunday refused to co-operate when prosecutors attempted to execute a warrant to search Cheong Wa Dae, citing reasons of national security. Instead, Cheong Wa Dae staff voluntarily submitted what they said were relevant documents.