Book ceremonies come under fire

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Book ceremonies come under fire

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A file photo shows a lawmaker shaking hands with a guest at her book publishing ceremony late last year. [JoongAng Ilbo]

As the National Assembly wrapped up its government audit and budget deliberations this week, criticism from political watchers has grown louder over lawmakers’ practice of hosting book publishing ceremonies in time with sensitive legislative schedules.

This year’s 20-day audit ended yesterday, and the National Assembly will hold closed sessions from Monday to Thursday this week.

According to the National Assembly Secretariat, lawmakers held 15 book publishing ceremonies in September and October. Since the legislature began its session last year, they have hosted a total of 34 book publishing ceremonies, 44 percent of which were concentrated in the past two months.

It is widely acknowledged that lawmakers use book publishing ceremonies to raise political funds, and under the political fundraising law - revised in 2004 - a lawmaker can only receive a maximum 150 million won through fund-raising events.

A book publishing ceremony, however, is considered a private event not covered under the law.

Many critics claim lawmakers are scheduling ceremonies in line with government audits and budget reviews because the legislature’s power is emboldened. And they also say these events do more harm than good because they have the potential to affect legislation.

“The timing is very troublesome,” said Sohn Byoung-kwon, a political science professor at Chung-Ang University. “When the government officials attend the events, it could bring about speculation that they went to the ceremonies in order to weaken the audits on their organizations or please lawmakers to win larger budgets. The payments for the books can also be used as a way of paying bribes.”

Fourteen book parties took place in September - nine by Democratic Party lawmakers and four by ruling Saenuri lawmakers.

One was hosted by a Democrat in October, and 17 events are planned for November -14 of which were scheduled by the Democrats.

About a thousand guests attended a ceremony hosted by Representative Lee Koon-hyon of the Saenuri Party on Sept. 3 at the National Assembly’s main conference room. Lee is the chairman of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts.

Among those invited were the ministers of justice, education and trade.

“I wonder if any of us are actually interested in the book,” one government official said at the ceremony.

Despite grumblings about the timing, Representative Lee held another ceremony in Tongyeong, his district in South Gyeongsang, four days later.

On Sept. 4, Saenuri Representative Kim Jung-hoon, chairman of the National Police Committee, hosted a book publishing ceremony. Executives from insurance companies, security companies, asset management firms, banks and credit card companies flooded the event.

“Lawmakers have ties to the companies through their fellow alumni or hometown friends,” said one executive. “If you don’t go to a party, you can be identified as a person to watch. So you have no choice but to attend.”

Other powerful members of the National Assembly who headed standing committees also hosted book publishing ceremonies in September before the legislature started the government audit.

Representative Shin Hak-yong of the Democratic Party, who heads the Education, Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee, hosted his event on Sept. 5. Other lawmakers, including Representative Kim Young-joo of the Democratic Party, and Representative Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, held their parties last month.

More events are also scheduled for November.

Right now, 17 book publishing parties are scheduled for next month. Among them, three are hosted by Saenuri lawmakers and the rest by Democrats.

Lawmakers also have legal rights to the money raised by selling books at the event. There is no limit, and they are not required to report the details to the authorities.

“There was not a single lawmaker who made a report to the National Election Commission about raising political funds from a book publishing event,” one commission official said.

And the price of the lawmakers’ books can be costly. Because there is no official price tag, guests generally make a donation and take a copy of the book. Companies and organizations also buy them in bulk. “If you are a lawmaker with more than three terms, you will probably end up with at least 100 million won,” said an aide to a Saenuri lawmaker. “I have heard that someone raised 1 billion won from one event.”

He said lawmakers receive the money in cash, so it is hard for the aides to know the actual amount. “It really is an evil practice that must end,” he said.

Another Saenuri lawmaker’s aide also said the lawmakers rarely write their books on their own. “Book publishing ceremonies are basically events to collect free money,” he said.

Some lawmakers, however, dismissed the criticisms and stressed that they are not trying to sidestep the political funding law.

“I took five months to write my book,” said Representative Sim of the Justice Party. “Because I don’t want rumors to spread, I issued receipts to all the guests who wanted one.”

Another lawmaker from the Democratic Party, Representative Lee Sang-jik, said two book events that he hosted actually made a loss because he made sure no government officials attended.

“For the September event, 31 lawmakers who wrote the book together with me split the loss,” he said.

BY LEE SO-AH, SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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