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Prosecutors who probed Woo embroiled in kickback scandal

May 16,2017
A senior official at the Ministry of Justice and the head of Seoul prosecutors’ office had dinner on April 21, sources from the prosecution told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday, during which they handed envelopes stuffed with cash to each others’ employees - Justice Ministry officials and several senior prosecutors who investigated former President Park Geun-hye.

The dinner reportedly took place four days after the special investigation team prosecuted Park and Woo Byung-woo, who supervised the police, prosecution and National Intelligence Service as her former senior civil affairs secretary and who was suspected of abuse of power and obstruction of justice in aiding Park and her friend, Choi Soon-sil.

The special investigation team, headed by Lee Young-ryeol, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, was facing criticism at the time of the dinner because it did not look into an alleged connection between Woo and Ahn Tae-gun, director of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice. An independent counsel team handed over a record of more than 1,000 phone calls between Ahn and Woo from July to October, when Woo was a target of a corruption probe.

Ahn and other senior officials of the ministry reportedly also attended the dinner.

The prosecution indicted Woo on April 17 without physical detention. A local court rejected the team’s request for a warrant to detain Woo for further questioning and prosecution in April, saying the prosecution had failed to prove he was a flight risk or that he might destroy evidence.

Unlike Park, Choi and others, Woo is the only key player in the presidential scandal who has managed to avoid jail.

According to the prosecution sources, the dinner involved heavy drinking. Ahn reportedly gave members of Lee’s investigation team money, while Lee gave money to officials under Ahn at the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry. The amounts given were not confirmed but one senior prosecutor estimated, “each envelope contained about 500,000 won [$444] to 1 million won.”

“I have never heard of such exchanges of money between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution after an important investigation is wrapped up,” said a prosecutor-turned-lawyer. “I cannot imagine why they gave that money.”

After the incident was reported, the prosecution sent text messages to reporters saying, “It has been a customary practice for the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to dine with junior prosecutors and the Ministry of Justice’s various bureaus. The head of the Criminal Affairs Bureau was not a target of an internal investigation or probe at the time of the dinner.”

The prosecution also said Lee is Ahn’s senior and the meeting was not inappropriate. Because the prosecution is under the supervision of the ministry, Lee’s action could be a violation of the newly established anticorruption law.

“Defining their relationship is important,” a judge told the JoongAng Ilbo. “If the money was a part of the prosecution’s budget and it has been an established custom to give gifts, it may not be a violation. But we have to consider the nature of the money and the people involved in the exchange.”

The ministry also said it is an established practice to give money from the ministry budget to prosecutors after a major investigation ends. The ministry, however, refused to make public the amount that was given.

BY SONG SEUNG-HWAN, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]