Lee suffers end-of-term syndrome
Presidential mentor grilled over bribery allegations
By Na Jeong-ju
Traditionally, corruption scandals rock administrations at the end of their terms.
History appears to be obviously repeating itself as the big guns who helped President Lee Myung-bak win the 2007 election and enjoyed riding on the cusp of power are now succumbing to a backlash for their avarice.
Amid morning drizzle, former Korea Communications Commission (KCC) Chairman Choi See-joong, who is referred to as Lee’s mentor, was summoned by prosecutors Wednesday on charges of taking huge bribes.
With a big black umbrella, the 75-year-old man, the power behind the scenes, entered the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in southern Seoul. He told a gaggle of reporters, “I will answer questions to the best of my ability.”
It was widely expected that an advanced arrest warrant would be issued to put him behind bars for partially admitting to receiving money from Picity, a real estate developer, during the 2007 presidential campaign.
The grilling comes after investigators revealed that they had found clues suggesting his involvement in bribery. The prosecution said it secured testimony from former Picity Chairman Lee Jeong-bae that he offered bribes to Choi as well as another key presidential aide Park Young-joon, a former knowledge economy minister, through a “broker.”
There is now keen attention on whether the probe will lead to a full-scale investigation into campaign funds used during the 2007 presidential race. Choi admitted Monday that he received money from Picity, but claimed it was not in return for influence peddling and that he spent it on President Lee’s campaign.
Arriving at the prosecution office in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul at 10:40 a.m., a grim-faced Choi said, “I will answer (questions from prosecutors) sincerely.” Reporters asked a flurry of questions about his involvement, but he refused to answer.
According to the prosecution, the Picity chairman, who is now imprisoned, told investigators that he gave at least 6 billion won ($5.26 million) to the broker, who is a middle school junior to Choi, to lobby for a construction project. Prosecutors suspect that some 1.1 billion won was given to Choi and Park. The prosecution will issue a summons for the former vice minister, too.
The businessman said he bribed “powerful people” to get a license to build a complex of office buildings and logistics facilities in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul. The project had long been stalled due to its negative impact on traffic and air quality, but Seoul City approved the project in May 2006 when President Lee was mayor. Lee served as Seoul mayor from July 2002 to June 2006.
The real estate firm allegedly stashed a slush fund amounting to some 30 billion won. The prosecution is now tracing money transfers between the firm and presidential aides who had relationships with the chairman.
Choi, after receiving a complaint from the Picity chairman in 2010, reportedly called Financial Supervisory Service Governor Kwon Hyouk-se and Justice Minister Kwon Jae-jin, then-senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, and told them to “take care of” him.
Former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon, who succeeded Lee, is also in the hot seat.
In 2008, Seoul allowed Picity to convert logistics facilities into office buildings, which opposition lawmakers claim was preferential treatment for the developer. Given high rental fees for offices in southern Seoul, the decision boosted the value of the buildings by some 500 billion won, according to the lawmakers. The city government said Wednesday it has launched a full-scale probe into Oh’s possible involvement in the decision.
The prosecution reportedly secured clues to the bribery while investigating a separate corruption case involving Seon Jong-koo, CEO of the country’s largest electronics retailer Himart. Picity has long been a subcontractor for Himart, which allegedly created a slush fund through irregular deals with its subcontractors.
Ex-KCC Chairman Choi quit as chairman of Gallup Korea, an opinion survey firm, in May 2007 to join Lee’s campaign team. After Lee was elected later in the year, he was named as KCC chairman in March 2008 and had remained in the position until he resigned in February amid a bribery scandal involving his aides.