Independent counsel takes on Choi-gate probe

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Independent counsel takes on Choi-gate probe

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Korean artists urge the special investigation team in southern Seoul on Monday to grill Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, and Cho Yoon-sun, minister of culture, sports and tourism, among others, on whether they blacklisted liberal members in the culture scene. [NEWSIS]

The independent counsel that will dig into President Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal and ultimately decide whether she should be prosecuted after leaving office has moved into its new office in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, Monday.

Lee Kyu-chul, an assistant prosecutor on the investigation team and one of its five core members, said the group will finish moving into the three-story office by the end of this week and scan through all the information given to it by prosecutors.

The data and other evidence that prosecutors collected over the past two months in a separate probe that wrapped up last Sunday is said to be stored in a hidden location that very few people on the team can gain access to.

The paper documents, computer hard drives and cell phones weigh a ton in total.

The independent counsel’s team will get fully into gear next week after all 105 members in the group are formally appointed. What’s set to be the largest independent counsel ever formed in Korea is currently short of a couple of special investigators. Private lawyers are being hired for those positions.

The independent counsel who leads the team will work from the new office starting today.

Under domestic law, the team has until next Monday to prepare for the probe and until Feb. 27, 2017, to reach a decision whether President Park should be prosecuted on various charges as described by prosecutors in their indictment of Choi Soon-sil and former presidential aides.

The team can extend the probe by 30 days, but that would need the approval of Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is currently the acting president.

Park, who is awaiting a final ruling on her impeachment from the Constitutional Court, has a slew of allegations against her, including abuse of power, leaks of classified government information and coercion. While indicting her closest cronies, the prosecution labeled Park as an “accomplice,” which she adamantly denied.

Park cannot be indicted on those charges as president, but can be when she leaves office.

Upon wrapping up their probe this past weekend, prosecutors requested the special investigation team to delve further into suspicions that Park committed third-party bribery in the form of forcing business tycoons to sponsor hefty donations to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.

Prosecutors surmised the donations were made in return for favors from the government, but could not prove the link.

Samsung, LG, SK and Lotte are just a few of the Korean businesses that found themselves engulfed in the so-called Choi-gate scandal when it was revealed that the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations amassed a staggering 77.4 billion won ($66.2 million) in the days after their launches.

It’s not yet known whether the team will look at Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, and Cho Yoon-sun, minister of culture, sports and tourism, over suspicions they blacklisted liberal artists.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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