Oxy attorney refuses to answer most questions

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Oxy attorney refuses to answer most questions

Much to the public’s dismay, the defense attorney of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, whose fatal humidifier sterilizers killed at least 73, refused to answer most questions put to him at the National Assembly hearing on Monday.

“It is not right for me to give an answer here, given that Kim & Chang is defending Oxy Reckitt Benckiser,” said Jang Ji-soo, a lawyer at Kim & Chang who is leading the British-controlled company’s defense team in Korea. He repeated this throughout the hearing.

The special committee leading parliamentary investigation into the humidifier sterilizer scandal, in which thousands claim themselves as victims, was aghast at Jang’s answer.

It was already unhappy with the scant presence of Oxy executives and employees at the first day of questioning on Monday.

Ataur Safdar, CEO of the company, and an employee of the external relations department, were present. Nine other executives and employees who were requested to be present, including former CEOs John Lee and Gaurav Jain, refused to show up.

“The public is watching everything right now,” said Saenuri Party Rep. Choung Tae-ok, a member of the special committee. “Yet here you are saying ‘I cannot give an answer because the trial is ongoing,’ do you think that’s right?”

“I think it inappropriate that a defending lawyer gives an opinion on the topic,” Jang said.

Kim & Chang, the country’s largest law firm, is accused of tweaking university reports warning of the inhalation toxicity of the chemical polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG) used in Oxy-brand humidifier sterilizers as well as submitting reports stating the supposed harmlessness of its humidifier sterilizers.

It submitted the reports in 2011, after the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first linked mysterious pulmonary illnesses to the use of humidifier sterilizers.

A Seoul National University professor surnamed Cho, detained under charges of receiving bribes and conducting toxicity tests favorable to Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, had accused Kim & Chang of altering his report. Cho did not show up at Monday’s hearing. Prosecutors on Tuesday requested the court sentence him to three years in prison.

The law firm also reportedly advised Oxy Reckitt Benckiser to submit reports to prosecutors that say the plaintiffs may have contracted their pulmonary illnesses due to fine dust particles in the air or flower pollen.

According to prosecutors, Oxy Reckitt Benckiser killed at least 73 and sickened 108 more, its humidifier sterilizer having inflicted the highest number of casualties and injuries among all sterilizer products.

The humidifiers themselves worked fine with regular water, but consumers believed that by adding sterilizers to the water they could prevent mold buildup.

“Oxy began using PHMG in its sterilizers in 2000, before Reckitt Benckiser bought the company,” said Safdar at the hearing on Monday. “So I do not know whether Oxy had tested the toxicity of the chemical at the time. Please understand that I cannot give a clear answer to what happened before the merger.”

Oxy merged with Reckitt Benckiser in 2001, becoming Oxy Reckitt Benckiser. Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser reportedly holds 100 percent of shares in Oxy Reckitt Benckiser.

Safdar admitted that there is a link between Oxy-brand sterilizers and the pulmonary illnesses.

Oxy Reckitt Benckiser announced this month that at least 150 million won ($134,080) will be provided to each victim of the Oxy-brand humidifier sterilizer.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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