Hong mired in new controversy

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Hong mired in new controversy

South Gyeongsang Governor Hong Joon-pyo once again found himself cornered this week over accusations that he received 100 million won ($91,800) from a late construction tycoon in 2011 during the politician’s run for the ruling party chairmanship.

However, in maintaining his innocence, the former prosecutor was forced to deflect other questions over where and how the funds for an alleged 120 million won political donation made during the same race were collected.

The prosecution is expected to indict Hong, 60, over suspicions that he accepted bribes from Sung Won-jong, the former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises, who set in motion a massive payoff scandal last month following the tycoon’s apparent suicide.

The South Gyeongsang governor, who was renowned for being tough on corruption during his heyday as a prosecutor, was one of eight influential politicians the late businessman claimed to have paid off in a note found on his body following his death.

Hong was implicated in the memo, with 100 million won ? the amount Sung presumably paid him ? written next to his name.

Prosecutors suspect Hong took funds from Sung in June 2011, when he ran for the ruling party’s top post ? a speculation that was later enforced by Yoon Seong-mo, the former vice president of Keangnam Enterprises, who earlier testified that he had personally delivered the money to Hong at the National Assembly.

Hong, however, has diligently denied that account, claiming that there must have been an “accident” in the process.

On Tuesday, Yoon remarked that it was Hong’s “free will to say so” ? a likely implication that the governor was not being truthful ? though he refused to go into further detail, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Prosecutors believe it is possible Hong may have used the funds from Sung for a donation he made while contending for the chairmanship of the ruling Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party.

The governor maintained during a press conference Monday that he had never accepted bribes, stating that the 120 million won that appeared in his lawmaker’s account around that time had been from his wife.

“The 120 million won used during the race was money my wife had saved without my knowledge,” Hong said Monday at the South Gyeongsang Provincial Office. “She put aside some of the money I earned while I was working as an attorney from November 1995 to December 2005, and I also gave her some of the money provided by the National Assembly for operational expenses.”

He added, “When I was the floor leader of the ruling [Grand National Party], I also worked as the chairman of the House Steering Committee. I received 40 to 50 million won each month and gave the rest of those expenses to my wife in cash.”

“At the time of the race in June 2011, she had about 300 million won in a safety deposit box at Woori Bank’s Jeonnon-dong branch, and she gave 120 million of it to me,” Hong said. “She still has about 150 million won, and she currently has a safety deposit box at another Woori Bank branch in the Jamsil area.

“To avoid any misunderstanding during the investigation, she withdrew all the funds and took it to her sister’s house. I’ve made some errors while registering my assets, but I hope the prosecution does not regard it as corrupt money.”

The prosecution is currently planning to summon Hong’s secretary from 2011 to check the validity of the governor’s statement on Monday.

His explanation, however, has added another layer to an already complex web of possibilities, and could see the governor potentially facing embezzlement charges.

“This is clearly an embezzlement of public expenses,” Kang Hee-yong, the deputy spokesman for the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said in a statement released Monday. “It is an unimaginable crime for ordinary government officials to use tax money for private use, not public use, and give it to his wife in cash.”

“It is also a violation of the ethics act for public servants if he intentionally didn’t register his wife’s money for years,” Kang continued.

Hong later denied the accusation on one of his social networking sites, saying the money he gave to his wife was just part of the wages given to him as the chairman of the House Steering Committee in the National Assembly.

Meanwhile, the prosecution’s special investigation team claimed that it has acquired evidence that may prove Hong met with Yoon.

Prosecutors also suspect Yoon met with Sung a few days before the businessman committed suicide.

BY KIM BONG-MOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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