NTS shaken by corruption scandals
Tax collectors have been enduring a bad rap throughout the history of mankind.
Even Jesus, who supposedly was all about love and tolerance, would talk about how corrupt tax officials unfairly burden the poor, according to passages from the Bible. And history books are filled with stories of ancient kingdoms toppling from revolts after messing with taxes.
Fast forward to 2012, and it seems that the contemporary tax authorities in Korea are failing to improve the image of their profession. Recent corruption scandals surrounding the Lee Myung-bak government have exposed a complicated web of murky connections and corruption at the National Tax Service (NTS) and the damage to its credibility seems irrevocable.
Tax officials here throughout the years have enjoyed kickbacks from businessmen and companies in exchange for favors during tax audits, according to mounting evidence. To put it simply, they basically stole from state coffers.
This deep-rooted dirtiness has now led to the NTS having a starring role in an exploding controversy on whether Cheong Wa Dae and the prime minister’s office have illegally spied on citizens in recent years.
This is certainly the worst among the long list of accusations surrounding President Lee Myung-bak, who may face calls to step down prematurely if investigators prove he was directly involved.
Park Young-sun, a lawmaker from the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), recently claimed that the NTS collected around 50 million won ($44,200) from some leading conglomerates to help pay the legal expenses for Jang Jin-su, a former prime minister’s office official suspected of directing the civilian surveillance. Jang, according to investigators, has confessed to receiving money from a Cheong Wa Dae official and was told to be quiet about it.
NTS officials flatly denied Park’s claims, but prosecutors are investigating them anyway.
“After collecting the money from the big companies, an NTS official dispatched to Cheong Wa Dae transferred the cash to high-ranking officials in need of it,” Park said.
Should investigators manage to prove an unlawful link between the government and NTS, it would render all the bureaucratic speechifying about reforming the NTS irrelevant.
President Lee appointed economist-turned-politician Baek Yong-ho at the head of the NTS in August 2009 and declared that his main mission was to restore transparency and credibility at the agency. Baek tried to shake things up by hiring “outside” experts as audit division heads and in advisory roles.
A high-ranking NTS official said that about five to six officials from his agency are dispatched regularly to the presidential office. If the current spying scandal is indeed this government’s own Watergate, it looks inevitable that the NTS will be dragged into the mess.
“There were no citizen surveillance activities during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, when I was deployed to Cheong Wa Dae. However, I have no idea what happened during the current government,” said the official.
Another man tainted with corruption at NTS is its former senior official Lee Hee-wan. Lee was accused last year of receiving 3 billion won from SK Group’s affiliates between 2006 and 2010 in exchange for favors in tax probes, in what prosecutors described as a “post-retirement payoff.”