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Ulsan vice mayor grilled in Blue House probe

Dec 07,2019
Ulsan’s vice mayor was grilled and his office raided Friday as part of a probe into the Blue House’s alleged meddling in the mayoral election in 2018.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office summoned Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi Friday for questioning about alleged meddling by the Blue House, according to the sources in the legal community, and his office, home and car in Ulsan were raided.

Prosecutors have been investigating an allegation that the Blue House triggered a police investigation of Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon three months before he ran for a second term in June 2018. Kim, nominated by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), lost that election to Song Cheol-ho, the candidate of the ruing Democratic Party (DP) and a close friend of President Moon Jae-in.

A follow-up investigation by the prosecution of Kim eventually cleared him and his aides - of any wrongdoing - raising suspicions about why he was investigated in the first place.

Vice Mayor Song was suspected of being the source of the tip-off that triggered the probe. Song held a press conference Thursday and admitted that he tipped off an assistant secretary of the Blue House’s civil affairs secretary office in October 2017 to alleged abuse of power by the mayor’s office over a construction project.

Song, however, stressed that he did not have the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election in mind at the time.

Without identifying the source as Song, the Blue House said Wednesday that the tip-off was given to the assistant secretary, whose surname is Moon, around October 2017. That information was edited into a report and sent up the chain of command. The Blue House gave the report to the National Police Agency, and a massive police probe took place into Kim’s associates on the eve of the election.

After the Blue House’s explanation on Wednesday, prosecutors summoned the assistant secretary named Moon on Thursday and questioned him. The questioning of Song and raids at his office and home took place the next day.

Moon was reportedly questioned about how he obtained the tip-off and how he reported the information to his supervisor, Baek Won-woo, who was presidential secretary for civil affairs.

The Blue House’s press briefing on Wednesday and Song’s press conference on Thursday didn’t fully jibe, and the prosecutors were expected to question Song about them.

Although Song said he told Moon about suspected irregularities by Kim’s aides in a phone conversation, the Blue House said it received the information through a messaging app.

Song also said he became acquainted with Moon through a friend in Seoul, but the Blue House said they happened to meet on a camping trip and became friends.

The Blue House said Wednesday that Song voluntarily offered the information. Song, however, told the media later in the day that he gave the tip-off to Moon “because the government first demanded certain information, so I searched for it and replied.”

Song is currently vice mayor to Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho.

He worked as a public servant for the Ulsan city government most of his career. He left the city government in 2015 after Kim was elected mayor in 2014. After working at a research institute for some years, he joined Song Cheol-ho’s campaign in 2017 as chief of policy planning.

He returned to the city government in 2018 after Song won the election and appointed him vice mayor for the economy.

Meanwhile, the Blue House dismissed another suspicion that it had influenced the Ulsan mayoral election by discussing a campaign pledge with Song Cheol-ho when he was running in 2018.

The media reported that candidate Song and Song Byung-gi, who worked on his campaign, met with a presidential aide in January 2018, five months before the election, and discussed an election pledge to open a public hospital in the city.

“It was not a meeting to discuss the candidate’s pledge,” a presidential official said in a text message to reporters. “It was a meeting to explain President Moon’s pledges. When President Moon hosted a meeting with mayors and governors in June 2017, then-Ulsan Mayor Kim had asked the president to aggressively push the public hospital project.”

Conspicuously missing, however, was an explanation by the Blue House why it only talked to the DP candidate, not others including Kim.

Meanwhile, Kim began legal procedures to invalidate the 2018 election. He decided to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of a clause governing the invalidation process in the Public Official Election Act. Under current law, Kim has missed the deadline to challenge the legitimacy of the 2018 election.

“A political party or a candidate must challenge the outcome of an election of a mayor or a governor to the National Election Commission within 14 days,” said Seok Dong-hyun, a lawyer and a legal advisory council leader of the LKP. “That is too short. There is also no clause governing a retroactive petition if a candidate discovers irregularities after the deadline.”

The LKP said the 14-day period should be extended to one year or an additional clause should be introduced to allow a candidate to challenge the outcome of an election within 90 days after he or she discovers a possible irregularity.

That legal battle will take a long time. Even if Kim’s petition is approved by the Constitutional Court, the National Assembly must revise the election law to reflect the change.

If prosecutors establish a direct connection between the police probe against Kim’s aides and Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho or his top campaign officials, and if Song is convicted of serious charges, Song will automatically lose his seat.

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