President‘s mentor Choi embroiled in bribery scandal
By Na Jeong-ju
Former Korea Communications Commission (KCC) Chairman Choi See-joong is facing being summoned for allegedly taking billions of won in bribes from a businessman.
Another key presidential aide Park Young-joon, a former vice minister of knowledge economy, is also suspected of having taken money from the same businessman, the prosecution said Monday.
The fresh graft scandal is expected to deal a heavy blow to the Lee administration, which is already reeling from a series of corruption scandals involving presidential staff and senior officials. Choi is regarded as President Lee’s mentor.
The 75-year-old Choi was banned from leaving the country after the prosecution secured testimony from the businessman, surnamed Lee, that he offered him bribes to seek his influence for a construction project, on several occasions from 2007 to 2008. Lee is a former chairman of Picity, which had sought to build a complex of office buildings and logistics facilities in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul, until it went bankrupt in Aug. 2010. The firm’s creditors have since taken over the project under a court-approved debt workout plan.
Last week, prosecutors raided Lee’s house and office to secure evidence and took him into custody. The prosecution may issue summons for Choi as early as this week.
Choi, a former journalist at the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, reportedly received the money from Lee through a “broker.” The businessman told investigators that the broker contacted him first, saying he had close relationships with powerful people, including Choi, and could arrange business deals for him. Lee then gave a total of 6.1 billion won ($5.36 million) to the broker, according to the prosecution.
The prosecution reportedly secured clues to the bribery while investigating a separate corruption case involving Seon Jong-koo, CEO of the country’s largest electronics retailer Himart.
Lee’s firm Picity has long been a subcontractor for Himart, which allegedly created a slush fund through irregular deals with its subcontractors.
Prosecutors said Lee gave the money to Choi to seek his influence in the construction business, but received little help from him. Ex-vice minister Park, a longtime aide to Choi, is also under investigation for allegedly taking money from Lee.
Choi admitted that he received the money, but claimed that it was not in return for influence peddling.
“I spent all the money on the presidential campaign because at the time I worked as a campaign advisor for then candidate President Lee,” Choi told the cable news channel YTN.
Choi quit as chairman of Gallup Korea, an opinion survey firm, in May 2007 to join Lee’s campaign team. After Lee was elected later in the year, he was named as KCC chairman in March 2008 and had remained in the position until he resigned in February amid a bribery scandal involving his aides.
Choi, who was born in Pohang, is a key member of the so-called Yeongpo group, a fraternity of senior officials whose hometowns are Yeongil and Pohang in North Gyeongsang Province. The group has been criticized for influencing personnel appointments at government offices and public firms, using its ties to President Lee, who spent most of his childhood in Pohang.
Park, the former vice minister, is also a member. He worked as deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2010 when the ethics bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office conducted illegal surveillance of citizens critical of President Lee.