Painting an ugly picture

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Painting an ugly picture

The closer we look at the so-called painting bribery scandal involving top tax officials, the uglier the picture gets.

Hong Hye-kyung, owner of the Gaain Gallery, said former National Tax Commissioner Han Sang-yool wanted 300 million won ($259,385) for offering the deputy chief post at the agency to Hong’s husband. She heard that the money would supplement a 1 billion won slush fund headed for a political top dog.

Hong’s husband, Ahn Won-koo, a senior tax official, is under arrest for forcing companies to buy art worth 1.47 billion won from the Gaain Gallery as hush money over tax probes. According to Hong’s disclosure, the tax commissioner needed 1 billion won and his deputy 300 million won to keep their seats. The depth and extent of corruption in one of the country’s most powerful organizations is exasperating.

Ahn’s bold exploitation of his profession to sell art has exposed the tax agency’s darkest secrets of extortion, corporate patronage and bribes to politicians. Jeon Goon-pyo, a former tax commissioner, is currently serving time on graft charges for receiving an expensive painting from Han ahead of his promotion.

Han stands at the heart of the matter, yet he has escaped the scene and remains silent nine months since the scandal first broke out. In the meantime, the investigation slips deeper in his absence.

And now a chain of questions mounts over Han’s involvement. First, did he or didn’t he seek to bribe Jeon with a valuable painting, a charge the latter denies? Second, has he actually attempted to save his seat with 10 billion won? Han had remained in the post even after the new administration took office. Finally, has he received grafts while conducting a tax investigation on Taekwang Industrial?

Chun Shin-il, head of the Sejoong Tour Mall, confessed he paid Han off to seek the favor of Taekwang Industrial Chairman Park Yeon-cha. Han had fled to the United States in March when the scandal broke out. The prosecution said it cannot force Han’s return because there is no evidence that Han has received 300 million won. It had questioned Han’s involvement via e-mail while investigating Chun. But it’s time that the prosecution takes more strong action, mobilizing all it can to bring him in for questioning. Otherwise, the prosecution itself cannot escape suspicion over sidestepping on the case. It would be best for Han to cooperate with the investigation out of his own will for the sake of restoring the credibility of his longtime employer.

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