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Cho denies leaning on university head

He admits phone call about award, but says he asked for truth
Sept 07,2019
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Cho Kuk, the justice minister nominee, center, takes an oath at his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, on Friday. [NEWS1]
Cho Kuk, the justice minister nominee, admitted Friday that he did talk to Dongyang University President Choi Sung-hae before the school head talked to the prosecution as a witness in a snowballing admissions fraud scandal surrounding Cho’s daughter.

The embattled nominee, however, denied any attempt at witness tampering.

The National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee held a hearing Friday to scrutinize President Moon Jae-in’s nomination of Cho as his new minister of justice. Opposition lawmakers grilled Cho about many suspicions and allegations surrounding his family, particularly that his wife, Professor Chung Kyung-sim of Dongyang University, had fabricated an award that their daughter submitted as a part of her application to Pusan National University’s (PNU) medical school. The 28-year-old daughter entered the school in 2015.

Earlier this week, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office raided Dongyang University and questioned Choi about Chung’s suspected forgery. Choi told reporters Thursday that Chung had asked him to lie about the award, but he refused.

Choi made a bombshell revelation later Thursday night that the nominee had also talked to him about the matter. “When Chung telephoned me [on Wednesday], she put Cho on the phone,” Choi told Channel A.

According to Choi, Chung asked him to say that he had authorized her to issue the award. After he said no, Cho was put on the phone and asked him to accept her request. “Cho said he had consulted his legal counsel team about this,” Choi said. “He said it will save both me and Professor Chung.”

Choi also told the JoongAng Ilbo on Friday about his conversation with Cho. “Cho said there will be no legal problem if I say I had authorized [Chung to issue the award],” Choi said.

At the confirmation hearing, Rep. Chang Je-won of the opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) asked Cho about the phone conversation. Cho, then, admitted that he did talk to Choi. Cho, however, denied that he pressured Choi to lie. He also denied that he told Choi about his consultation with legal advisers.

“I apologized to Choi for having troubled him,” Cho said. “I just asked him to reveal the truth.”

Rep. Chang warned Cho that his action can be considered criminal witness tampering. The lawmaker also said Choi has a record of his conversation with Cho, but did not make it public at the hearing.

Cho’s conversation with Choi was contrary to his earlier claim that he intentionally avoided controversial contacts. When he held an 11-hour press conference on Tuesday to defend himself, Cho repeatedly stressed that he had intentionally avoided contacting any people linked to allegations that the prosecution was investigating. In addition to Cho’s daughter’s alleged admissions fraud, the prosecution is also investigating suspicious investments by Cho’s family.

Legal analysts said Cho could face criminal charges if he asked Choi to lie. Cho and his wife could face coercion and witness tampering charges, they said.

At the confirmation hearing, Cho was also grilled about suspected evidence destruction by his wife. On the eve of the prosecutor’s raid of Dongyang University on Tuesday, Chung removed her computer from her office. A banker from Korea Investment and Securities helped her move the computer, and prosecutors raided the securities’ firm’s Yeouido center on Thursday.

Cho defended his wife at the confirmation hearing. He said she needed the computer but she could not work in her office due to media attentions. She, therefore, took the computer from the office, Cho said, denying any attempt to destroy evidence.

At the confirmation hearing, ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers asked if Cho will still serve as the justice minister if the daughter’s award is proven to be fake. Cho gave an ambiguous answer but did say his wife will have to take legal responsibility.

“If the Dongyang University award is a fake, it is obvious that you won’t be serving as the justice minister,” Rep. Kim Jong-min of the DP said. Another DP lawmaker Jung Sung-ho also asked Cho what he will do if the award was indeed a forgery by his wife.

“A probe is ongoing. The investigative body will make a conclusion. If she is prosecuted, she will stand trial and face a punishment if responsible,” Cho said, making clear that he will sit through the entire criminal process that will take months if not years.

Jung told the nominee that he should also prepare to take responsibility if his wife is prosecuted.

Following media reports about the suspected award forgery, the public increasingly turned against Cho’s appointment. According to a Realmeter poll on Thursday, 56.2 percent disagreed with Cho’s appointment, while 40.1 percent agreed. Disagreement was up by 4.7 percent, while agreement went down by 6 percent from a poll conducted Tuesday.

President Moon gave the National Assembly until Friday to conclude the confirmation process. If Moon decides to keep Cho, he can technically appoint him as early as today.

Meanwhile, the Korean Society of Pathologists said Thursday night that it has decided to retract a medical paper that credited Cho’s daughter as first author. The paper was submitted by Dankook University Professor Chang Young-pyo in December 2008 and published in the society’s journal in March 2009.

Cho’s daughter, a high school second grader at the time, was credited as first author after her two-week internship in 2008. The internship was suspected to be arranged by Cho’s wife.

The paper also identified her as a researcher at the medical research institute of Dankook University, not a high school intern.

The society said Thursday that Professor Chang was the only qualified author of the paper, and it decided on the retraction for ethical violations.

The retraction can affect Cho’s daughter’s admission to Korea University in 2010. She included the first author credit as an accomplishment in her undergraduate application.

The university said it will wait for the outcome of the prosecution’s probe into the scandal.

If Cho’s daughter’s Korea University admission is canceled, her admission to PNU medical school will also be voided. An undergraduate degree is a prerequisite for medical school.

BY SER MYO-JA, KIM SU-MIN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]