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Woo to be grilled for third time

Former presidential aide has managed to avoid arrest so far
Apr 05,2017
Prosecutors will question Woo Byung-woo, former civil affairs aide of ousted President Park Geun-hye, as a suspect on Thursday in abuse of power, negligence and obstruction of justice charges.

The special investigation team of the prosecution summoned Woo for questioning at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office at 10 a.m. Thursday. It will be his third round of questioning by investigators since the scandal about the former president and her secret inner circle erupted last year.

Woo was questioned over corruption allegations involving him and his family last November. He was questioned again in February by Independent Counsel Park Young-soo on other charges including abuse of power.

None of the two investigations led to an indictment of Woo. The independent counsel handed over the Woo case to the prosecution and the special investigation team reopened it in March.

While many powerful figures involved in the scandal, including Park, her confidante Choi Soon-sil and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong have been detained for investigation and prosecution, Woo, a former senior prosecutor, has remained free. The independent counsel’s attempt to seek a detention warrant for Woo was rejected in February.

Woo served as the civil affairs secretary of the Blue House from 2014 to 2015 and as 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.

“We summoned so far 46 people to go after Woo,” a source from the special investigation team said Monday.

In addition to corruption and abuse of power suspicions, Woo was accused of turning a blind eye to the clout Park gave her friend Choi in state affairs. Suspicions were also raised that Woo meddled in appointments and dismissals of officials.

A key part of the investigation is Woo’s alleged interference in the prosecution’s investigation in 2014 into the Coast Guard’s failed rescue operation during the Sewol ferry sinking.

The ferry, carrying 476 passengers, sank on a voyage from Incheon to Jeju Island on April 16, 2014, leaving 304 dead. The vessel was lifted from the seabed on March 25 and arrived at the southwestern port of Mokpo on Friday afternoon.

When prosecutors raided the main office of the Coast Guards on June 5, 2014, Woo was suspected of having telephoned the team and stopping them from searching and seizing computer servers of the Coast Guards’ command center.

Pyun Chan-woo, former head of the Gwangju District Prosecutors Office, was questioned Tuesday about Woo’s suspected interference in the Sewol investigation. Pyun was the supervisor of the investigation into the government’s botched rescue operation. On Monday afternoon, Yoon Dae-jin, a deputy head of the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office, was also questioned as a witness.

During a National Assembly investigative hearing last December, Woo admitted that he telephoned Yoon on the day of raid but only to check on the situation.

Woo was also suspected of pressuring the prosecution to reduce the charge against Kim Kyung-il, captain of the first coast guard ship sent to help the Sewol passengers.

Pyun prosecuted Kim for involuntary manslaughter despite outside pressure. He was later excluded from a routine promotion and left the prosecution for private practice. Woo denied any role in the stopping of Pyun’s promotion.

The special investigation team also plans to go after Woo for negligence, as the civil affairs senior secretary’s office of the Blue House allegedly helped former President Park conceal the scandal.

When media started raising suspicions last year about the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations, two pet projects of Park jointly operated with Choi, Woo’s office conducted a legal review and created a contingency plan.

It was offered to figures involved in the scandal, including An Chong-bum, then-senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, and Lee Seung-cheol, then-vice chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries.

The plan said the figures should spin the scandal to argue that there was no illegality concerning the foundations and divert attentions away from the fundraising process.

In a senior secretariat meeting she hosted as the president in Oct. 20, 2016, Park said, “The Mi-R and K-Sports foundations were established voluntarily by the companies. Anyone who committed crimes such as misappropriation of the foundations’ funds will be punished sternly.”

The special investigation team said the contingency plan is decisive evidence to prove negligence charge against Woo. “We also have testimonies to prove it,” a source from the team said.

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