Pastor and his son convicted in tax evasion caseA Seoul court yesterday convicted the Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the founder of Korea’s biggest church, and his oldest son, Cho Hee-jun, of breach of trust and tax evasion, causing 13.1 billion won ($12.1 million) in losses for the Yoido Full Gospel Church.
The Seoul Central District Court handed down the senior Cho a three-year prison term, which was suspended for five years, and ordered him to pay 5 billion won in fines.
It also sentenced his son to three years behind bars, which he was ordered to begin serving immediately.
Presiding Judge Cho Yong-hyun said in verdict deliberations that because of Cho’s status as a top decision-maker within the church, the pastor emeritus must have approved the irregularities or deliberately stayed quiet, thereby signaling his approval.
The court also ruled that the elder Cho, hailed as the father of Korean evangelicalism and known for his conservative stance on social issues, evaded an inheritance tax worth 3.6 billion won, which the court said will be collected by the state.
“Considering how the defendant has led his life in tumultuous times, and contributions he has made to society as a religious man, the court has decided to suspend his prison term for five years,” the judge explained.
The 78-year-old pastor founded the giant red-bricked Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul in 1973, after which it grew into one of the world’s largest Christian congregations, with more than 800,000 members currently registered.
Cho stood trial on charges that he ordered church officials in 2002 to purchase 250,000 shares of stock for I-Service, a company owned by his oldest son, at a price four times higher than market value, causing the church to lose 13.1 billion won.
Prosecutors argued that Cho’s son, 49, had asked his father to purchase the shares at a much higher cost to recoup the 20 billion won he lost in stock investments two years earlier - a claim the court accepted yesterday.
Cho Hee-jun apparently lost that sum while serving as chairman of the Kookmin Ilbo, when he collected billions of won in donations from readers and church members to help cover the newspaper’s operating costs.
The courtroom was packed with church members throughout the 90-minute sentencing, a testament to the influence the Cho family wielded in the mega-church.
While delivering the three-year prison term for the former newspaper chairman, the judge rebuked the younger Cho for attempting to shift the responsibility for his unethical business practices onto his father and other senior church members.
“The defendant’s behavior is subject to and deserves criticism,” Judge Cho said.
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]