At trial, key ally of Lee admits use of iffy cash

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At trial, key ally of Lee admits use of iffy cash

A key associate of President Lee Myung-bak repeated at a graft trial that he used money from a developer to fund Lee’s presidential campaign in 2007, prompting the opposition to demand an investigation.

The bribery trial of Choi See-joong, former chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, began Tuesday at the Seoul Central District Court, and Choi said he had used money he collected from a real estate developer for Lee’s presidential primary campaign.

While his testimony in court reiterated his initial explanation of what he did with the money, it contradicted a later explanation.

The change in Choi’s testimony prompted the main opposition Democratic United Party to intensify its attacks on the administration.

“We once again urge the prosecution to fully look into the illegal campaign funds for the 2007 presidential election,” Park Yong-jin, spokesman of the Democratic United Party, said yesterday, adding that the five-year statute of limitations will soon run out.

He also said the largest opposition party has every intention of working with the ruling Saenuri Party’s presidential front-runner Park Geun-hye, who lost to Lee in the conservative party’s primary in 2007. “The prosecution must find out who stole victory from Park Geun-hye,” the DUP spokesman said.

Known as President Lee’s political mentor, Choi is standing trial for allegedly receiving bribes from a real estate developer.

Three months ago, Choi first faced accusations that he received bribes from a developer in return for his influence to expedite the “pi-city” project in southern Seoul. At the time, he said he received money through a broker and used it to fund opinion polls for Lee’s presidential primary, but denied that he gave any help to the real estate project in return.

“I was working for the Lee Myung-bak presidential campaign in 2007 while serving as the Gallup Korea chairman,” Choi said in a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on April 23. “I received the money to finance the opinion polls, and it had nothing to do with the pi-city project.”

He said he received the money through Lee Dong-ryul, a hometown friend.

Choi changed his position when he was questioned by prosecutors in May. He told them he spent money for personal use.

As the trial began Tuesday at the Seoul Central District Court, Choi’s lawyer recanted his client’s testimony and said the money was used to finance Lee’s presidential primary.

“Choi admitted that he accepted 600 million won [$525,000] from the pi-city project from 2006 to 2007, but the money had nothing to do with the construction permit for the project,” Choi’s lawyer said. “It was purely to help finance the primary on the eve of the presidential election.”

Lee Dong-ryul, the supposed broker in the deal, gave similar testimony in the courtroom.

“In March 2006, Choi met with me and Lee Jung-bae, the head of the pi-city project,” Lee testified. “Choi said he was running a media forum ahead of the presidential primary and he needed money.”

Lee said he delivered 50 million won a month for 12 months from July 2006 to June 2007.

The latest testimony added pressure on the prosecution to widen its investigation into Lee’s presidential campaign funds.

In a separate case, the president’s elder brother, Lee Sang-deuk, was detained over suspicions that he had received 300 million won each from two savings banks on the eve of the presidential election in 2007.

A new accusation was also made public Tuesday that the president’s brother received 300 million won from Shinhan Bank in February 2008 shortly after his younger brother’s presidential victory.

The probes into the president’s brother and key aides have dealt a blow to the reputation of the waning Lee administration.

Lee has long stressed that his administration was “ethically perfect” because it was free from illegal political funding.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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