Indie counsel intends to question Park

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Indie counsel intends to question Park

A crucial week for President Park Geun-hye began Monday as special prosecutors prepare to question her about corruption and abuse of power allegations, with a plan to extend the investigation for another month.

Independent counsel Park Young-soo and his team are considering extending their probe, a spokesman of the team said Monday. The current mandate expires on Feb. 28, 2017.

“We have to make a decision before Feb. 25,” assistant independent counsel Lee Kyu-chul said Monday. “Taking into account the current situation, we think the investigation is still incomplete. We are positively considering seeking the extension.”

The team has the right to seek a 30-day extension. The extension requires the approval of Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is serving as acting president, since Park’s impeachment in December.

Because Hwang will likely veto the request, the main opposition Democratic Party’s 62 lawmakers sponsored a bill on Monday to revise the law governing the independent counsel probe to lengthen the initial investigation period to 120 days. If the bill is passed before Feb. 28, the additional period will be automatically offered to the team.

Hwang already rejected Monday the independent counsel’s request to raid the Blue House, after their initial attempt was blocked last week. Investigators obtained a court warrant to search the Blue House and seize evidence in the influence-peddling and abuse of power scandal involving the president, her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil and other associates. But they failed on Friday to enter the Blue House after a five-hour standoff against the presidential aides.

Assistant counsel Lee said he believes there is a lot of evidence in the Blue House, but the team will not insist on the raid, hinting that they will accept the compromise offered by the Blue House that it will select and submit requested materials.

“We will value substance over formality,” he said. “As long as we can get the materials that we want, it doesn’t matter whether we can enter the presidential compound for search and seizure or not.”

Lee also said the timing, location and the method of questioning the president have yet to be finalized. Expectations are high that the questioning will take place sometime between Wednesday and Friday, but there is a possibility that it may take place early next week. While Park wants the investigators to visit the Blue House and question her, the team wants to grill the president at a location outside the Blue House compound.

If the questioning takes place, it will be the first interrogation of Park since the scandal, which led to her impeachment, broke out last year. She initially promised to cooperate, but later refused. Since then, the independent counsel team took over the case.

Lee said the questioning can take place before investigators obtain materials from the Blue House. “We do not care much about which comes first,” he said.

Last month, the independent counsel team also obtained additional evidence from her former senior economic aide.

According to a Dong-A Ilbo report, the team recently obtained 39 notebooks belonging to An Chong-bum, former senior secretary for policy coordination. The records were submitted by An’s aide on Jan. 26, the report said.

An kept meticulous records of his work at the Blue House. The notebooks were records from June 2014 to November last year.

These were separate from the 17 notebooks the prosecution earlier secured. According to the report, An’s aide kept the 39 notebooks inside the Blue House because he thought there they would be safe from the raid.

Investigators are questioning An, based on the new evidence, about the allegation that Park received money from Samsung Group through Choi in return for the government’s support for a merger intended to secure management control of its third-generation leader, Lee Jae-yong, over the conglomerate.

Park has denied all charges raised by the prosecution, independent counsel and National Assembly. According to legal sources, Park submitted Friday a statement to the Constitutional Court to be used for her impeachment trial. It was Park’s first direct reaction to her impeachment. Until now, her position was represented by lawyers in the courtroom.

In the statement, Park denied all charges. Regarding the judges’ demand to specify her relationship with Choi, Park said they had a friendship for 40 years, but she never imagined Choi would take advantage of that relationship. “I thought Choi was just an ordinary housewife,” Park was quoted as saying. “I did not know she managed several companies.”

Park admitted that she sought Choi’s help in speechwriting, but stopped after her chief of staff and some secretaries were replaced in August 2013. Park said she asked her personal secretary, Jeong Ho-seong, to listen to Choi’s opinion, but never ordered him to send confidential information to Choi.

Park also denied charges that she made appointments and demoted public servants based on Choi’s opinions. She also said her orders to support some companies were voluntary, and she never knew that they were linked to Choi.

Park denied the allegation that she and Choi coerced conglomerates to make massive donations to her pet projects. “I asked chairmen of conglomerates to actively pay attentions to public projects and investments in cultural and sports fields for the country’s advancement,” Park said. “I never asked them to pay donations.”

Park failed to provide additional information about her whereabouts and actions on the day of Sewol’s sinking on April 16, 2014. One of the main grounds of her impeachment was her failure to protect the lives of the citizens due to nonfeasance. More than 300 passengers, mostly high school students on a field trip, were killed while the government’s rescue operation was delayed.

“My lawyers have submitted a detailed report,” Park said. “I want to refer to the report.”

During the preparatory period of the impeachment trial, the court asked Park to submit a detailed report about her whereabouts and actions. Her lawyers submitted a report after weeks, but the judges called it insufficient and demanded a better one. No new report, however, was submitted as of Monday.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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