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Special counsel mulls arresting Gov. Kim

Aug 08,2018
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Kim Kyoung-soo
A special counsel investigating a political influence campaign during last year’s presidential election is mulling an arrest warrant for South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo on charges of violating campaign laws after he denied all the allegations against him during 18 hours of questioning that lasted into early Tuesday morning.

Donning a visibly tired but upbeat countenance, Kim Kyoung-soo stepped out of the independent counsel’s office in southern Seoul at around 3:50 a.m. on Tuesday and was greeted by fanfare from his supporters. Many of them shouted words of encouragement for enduring a harrowing session with the counsel’s prosecutors.

The counsel summoned Kim Kyoung-soo on Monday morning to press him on allegations that he conspired with a power blogger, Kim Dong-won, widely known by his online alias Druking, to mount a manipulation campaign on social media to generate support for President Moon Jae-in during last year’s elections.

The blogger and his associates posted comments to news articles that were favorable toward Moon and used software to artificially inflate the number of “likes” on those comments. At the time, Kim Kyoung-soo was a key aide to Moon, and prosecutors believe he may have promised favors to the group in return for their help.

Speaking to reporters who were waiting for him outside the special counsel office, the governor said he went into the questioning with confidence, but he believed the probe “did not present any significant evidence.”

Kim Kyoung-soo told the counsel’s prosecutors that he had consulted Kim Dong-won and his associates for political advice but denied that he had known about their political influence campaign or offered the group favors for their help, his lawyer said, repeating a defense that the governor has used since allegations of his involvement first surfaced in April.

The denials strengthen the counsel’s case for an arrest warrant since they can argue that Kim Kyoung-soo might attempt to tamper with evidence against him.

During questioning, the special counsel largely focused on whether Kim Kyoung-soo was present at a meeting in November 2016 where Kim Dong-won and his crew allegedly demonstrated their rigging software, according to sources present in the questioning. Kim Kyoung-soo’s knowledge of the software’s functions could indicate he deliberately condoned the process.

The special counsel also questioned the governor on allegations that he promised sinecures like the post of consul general in Sendai, Japan, for Kim Dong-won and his associates last December in exchange for their help in his gubernatorial run in the June 13 election. This, along with an additional accusation that he received 27 million won ($24,000) from the group in November 2016, could amount to a breach of campaign laws.

The evidence backing up the counsel’s claims are files from a USB drive submitted by Kim Dong-won after his detention in March, including records of financial transactions and text messages exchanged between the two men. Some of the transcripts of the text message conversations were leaked to press last month.

Kim Kyoung-soo maintains that he had no reason to make a request for help in December since his decision to run for South Gyeongsang governor was made months later. Still, the statute of limitations on breaching campaign laws during the June election remains active and leaves him prone to indictment if the special counsel can prove he did indeed collude with Kim Dong-won’s associates for his gubernatorial run.

Huh Ik-bum, who is leading the special counsel investigation, was mum during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday morning when asked whether his team would seek an arrest warrant for Kim Kyoung-soo. He told reporters not to get too ahead of themselves but did not deny the possibility. He also suggested the governor might be called in for additional questioning based on the investigators’ needs.

Responding to accusations from the governor and his party that the special counsel was engaging in publicity stunts by reporting their findings, Huh expressed frustration with the accusations and said the counsel was not seeking press attention. Shortly after last month’s leak of text messages from the USB drive, the special counsel confirmed they had not come from within.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]