Prosecutors announce President Park is now a suspect in a criminal investigation
The prosecution’s decision to label Park a co-conspirator in the massive corruption scandal has offered legal ground for lawmakers to move ahead with a presidential impeachment motion.
The special investigation team of the prosecution held a briefing on Sunday to make an interim announcement regarding its probe into Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime friend; An Chong-bum, former senior presidential secretary for policy coordination; and Jeong Ho-seong, Park’s former personal secretary for 18 years. After weeks of interrogation, the three suspects were formally charged on Sunday, according to Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office who headed the special investigation team.
“The prosecution on Sunday indicted Choi on charges of abuse of power, coercion, attempted coercion and attempted fraud and indicted An on charges of abuse of power, coercion and attempted coercion,” Lee said. The two suspects were accused of coercing 53 companies to donate 77.4 billion won ($65.76 million) to two nonprofit organizations. In its indictments, the prosecution made it clear that Choi and An acted “in collusion with the president.”
The prosecution said the companies made donations fearing repercussions, such as tax probes or possible rejections of business permits and licenses, had they not done so. No bribery charges were therefore pressed, as that would require evidence that the companies made the payments in return for favors.
According to Lee, Jeong was prosecuted on charges of leaking confidential information to Choi that was obtained during his public duty.
“Based on the evidence secured so far,” Lee said, “the special investigation team concluded that the president colluded with Choi, An and Jeong for most parts of their crimes. But we cannot indict her because of her immunity stipulated in Article 84 of the Constitution.”
The Constitution states that the president shall not be charged with a criminal offense during his or her tenure of office except in cases of insurrection or treason.
“We repeatedly asked for a face-to-face questioning of the president,” said Lee, “who is suspected of having links to the three suspects’ crimes, but the interrogation has yet to take place. We still decided to press charges against the three suspects, who are under pretrial detention, based on the vast evidence we have investigated so far, including testimonies, a work memo book and records of conservations from mobile phones.”
Lee added, “We will continue investigating President Park based on our judgment.”
He also said that, until the independent counsel probe is launched, the prosecution will do its best to investigate other senior officials of the administration, Choi’s relatives and conglomerates that donated to the foundations. After the independent counsel begins, Lee said they will continue to cooperate on the matter.
Showing skepticism regarding the prosecution’s neutrality, the National Assembly passed a plan last week to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the scandal. Once a special prosecutor is appointed and the probe begins, the prosecution’s investigation will automatically be suspended.
The prosecution created the special investigation team on Oct. 27, 2016. It raided the presidential office, residences of Choi, An and Jeong and their offices, Lee said, and secured critical pieces of evidence, including Jeong’s mobile phone, An’s work memo book and presidential office reports.
The heads of nine conglomerates, including Samsung Group, who each had one-on-one meetings with the president, along with others involved, were questioned concerning allegations that companies were strong-armed into donating to the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations, Lee said. Choi was suspected of influencing the establishment and operation of the foundations and embezzling money from them. Based on their initial probe, he said, the prosecution managed to confirm this, as well as the allegation that Jeong leaked confidential information to Choi.
According to Lee, Jeong leaked about 180 documents containing secret and sensitive information, including drafts of presidential speeches, vetting reports on ministerial and vice-ministerial candidates, as well as foreign affairs documents. The information was delivered in person, through fax and by email.
The prosecution also said Jeong leaked the information to Choi from January 2013 until last April, directly contradicting Park’s earlier claim that she only sought Choi’s help briefly at the beginning of her presidency.
In her first apology on Oct. 25, 2016, Park said she sought Choi’s advice in writing and editing her speeches during the presidential campaign and early days of her presidency, but stopped after Blue House aides became available to her.
After the prosecution’s announcement, the Blue House said the president’s lawyer, Yoo Yeong-ha, will make an official response later in the afternoon. The presidential chief of staff hosted meetings throughout the day to address the situation.
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]