Hong questioned in payoff probe

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Hong questioned in payoff probe


South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo enters the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office building on Friday to be questioned by a special investigation team as a suspect in a massive political fund scandal. [NEWSIS]

South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo was questioned for hours by the prosecution Friday over allegations that he accepted bribes worth 100 million won ($91,800) from a late construction tycoon who set in motion a massive payoff scandal last month following his apparent suicide.

Sung Wan-jong, the former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises, was found dead on April 9 amid a corruption investigation.

He had apparently hanged himself from a tree branch on Mount Bukhan, leaving behind a note with the names of eight influential politicians, including the incumbent governor, next to the amount of money he allegedly paid them.

“I’m sorry that I’ve caused public concern over this [scandal],” Hong said to reporters at the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office.

Hong’s appearance at the prosecution as a suspect in a bribery case that has shaken the political establishment over the past month was a dramatic turn of events for the governor, who was renowned for being tough on corruption during his heyday as a prosecutor.

Prosecutors suspect Hong took 100 million won from Sung in June 2011, when he ran for the ruling party’s top post. They further believe Yoon Seong-mo, a former aide to the late businessman, delivered the money at the National Assembly. The prosecution is expected to indict hong in violation of the political fund law.

Prosecutors earlier obtained testimony from Yoon in which he stated that he had personally handed Hong cash stuffed into a bag - a charge the governor has denied.

Prosecutors further believe that Sung gave the illegal funds to Hong when he was contending for the ruling party chairmanship four years ago in the hopes that the former prosecutor would nominate him to run for the party in the 2012 general election.

Investigators have said it appeared Hong also tried to force Yoon, the former vice president of Keangnam Enterprises, to offer testimony that would free him from the bribery charge by having one of his associates contact him. Hong’s associate, Kim Hae-soo, told prosecutors during questioning that he had contacted Yoon, not because he was told to do so by Hong, but because he was concerned for Yoon as an old friend.

If prosecutors judge the governor did try to sway Yoon during the investigation, it is likely that they will seek a pretrial detention warrant for Hong following his questioning, which was still ongoing as of press time.

In the days leading up to his summons, the former prosecutor was not shy in building his defense and noted that the late businessman’s memo could not be submitted as evidence for the investigation.

Hong reasoned that Sung wrote the 56-word note when he was overwhelmed by emotion and in an unstable condition, which would thus discredit it as lawful evidence. He also claimed the memo lacked validity as evidence because it could not be cross-examined.

Hong and seven other political heavyweights, including three former and incumbent presidential chief of staffs and former Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, became mired in controversy after Sung’s apparent suicide.

The ongoing scandal raised speculation that some of Sung’s alleged kickbacks might have been used by President Park Geun-hye’s campaign team in the 2012 race, a theory that could put the integrity of her presidency at stake.

Prosecutors are expected to summon Lee, who was forced to resign, next for questioning.

On Friday, President Park said during a meeting with members of Rotary Korea that she was determined to see Korean society and its political circle “ethically reborn.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]
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