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Prosecutors get Choi-gate case back, focus on Woo

Independent counsel gives them masses of documents it gathered
Mar 08,2017
The prosecution Tuesday restarted its investigation into abuse of power and corruption allegations involving President Park Geun-hye and her inner circle.

Independent counsel Park Young-soo handed over the cases to the prosecution after his probe ended last week and the prosecution revived its special investigation team, which started investigating the scandal at the end of last year. Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office, will head the team again.

The prosecution assigned elite prosecutors and investigators from key bureaus to the team. It will have 31 prosecutors.

After an initial investigation in October and November, prosecutors indicted Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime friend, and An Chong-bum, former presidential aide, on charges of coercing conglomerates to make massive contributions to two non-profit foundations controlled by Choi. At the time, the prosecutors said Park was also a suspect in the crimes, but could not indict her due to presidential immunity.

The prosecution’s decision to label Park a co-conspirator offered legal grounds for lawmakers to impeach her, which they did on Dec. 9, 2016.

An independent counsel picked up the probe and also concluded that Park was a co-conspirator. She was also named a bribery suspect as the independent counsel prosecuted Samsung executives, including its de facto leader Lee Jae-yong, for having bribed Park through Choi. After its 90-day probe, the independent counsel handed over 100,000 pages of reports to the prosecution last week.

The reconstituted special investigation team will investigate bribery allegations against Park and other business groups including SK, Lotte and CJ groups. It remains to be seen if the prosecution will be able to question Park in person. Park refused to be questioned by prosecutors in November during the first probe. She also rejected the independent counsel’s attempts to question her.

The prosecution’s special investigation team assigned a unit to devote its investigative power to Woo Byung-woo, former senior civil affairs secretary to the president. Nine prosecutors will conclude a probe the independent counsel left unfinished.

Although the independent counsel looked into at least 11 charges against Woo, its attempt to detain the former prosecutor was rejected by a local court. The independent counsel handed over a lot of information on Woo to the prosecution.

During the first investigation, senior prosecutor Sohn Young-bae was in charge of the probe into Woo. This time, the prosecution assigned senior prosecutor Lee Keun-soo. “We have taken into account various circumstances, including the past career connections [with Woo],” a prosecution official told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last year, the prosecution’s two investigations into Woo didn’t lead to indictments. The independent counsel also did not prosecute Woo and handed over the case to the prosecution.

Woo served as the civil affairs secretary of the Blue House from 2014 to 2015 and as the senior civil affairs secretary until October 2016. The senior civil affairs secretary is a powerful post that supervises the prosecution, police and the National Intelligence Service. Park resisted months of pressure to fire Woo, accused of corruption, but let him go in the aftermath of her own scandal.

In addition to his own corruption and abuse of power charges, Woo was accused of having turned a blind eye to the power Park gave to her friend Choi in state affairs. The independent counsel also said suspicions were raised that Woo might have meddled in public servants’ appointments and dismissals.

Woo was also accused of interfering in the prosecution’s investigation into the Coast Guard’s failed rescue operation during the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014.

Woo reportedly used his influence over the prosecution and legal knowledge to dodge a criminal indictment. It remains to be seen if he will succeed to do so once again, as the prosecution was suspected to have given him special treatment during its earlier probe.

The independent counsel team said last week Woo had frequent phone conversations with top members of the prosecution, including Prosecutor-general Kim Soo-nam, last year, amid the prosecutors’ investigation into his corruption charges. About 1,000 phone calls were made between Woo and senior members of the prosecution, including 20 between Woo and Kim, the team said.

Meanwhile, a local newspaper reported that the independent counsel team ran out of time to go after Woo while it was checking on suspicious money transfers made into his bank account. The Dong-A Ilbo reported Tuesday that a number of companies transferred money to Woo’s bank account shortly after he was appointed civil affairs secretary in May 2014. Most of the companies were Woo’s clients when he was working as a lawyer. It was unclear if the deposits were legal fees paid belatedly or bribes for Woo’s influence on investigations or trials involving the companies. The report said Woo was already criticized for his inappropriate use of power. Shortly after his nomination for the Blue House post, Woo met with a prosecutor who investigated one of his clients, the report said.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]