Ministry sent Blue House concernsThe Environment Ministry contacted the environment minister during an overseas trip to relay the Blue House’s concerns after a candidate recommended by the presidential office was denied a job, according to sources at the prosecution Tuesday.
The prosecution is currently investigating Kim Eun-kyung, who was environment minister from 2017 to 2018, over allegations that she had abused the power of her office to make political appointments. The prosecutors also suspect that a presidential aide was also involved in the appointment scandal.
The prosecution sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday that it discovered evidence that the ministry contacted Kim, the minister at the time, to tell her that the Blue House was upset after when a candidate it recommended for an executive position at the Korea Environmental Corporation, which is affiliated with the ministry, was denied the job in July last year. At the time, Kim was on a trip to Singapore and the United States to attend International Water Week events and a United Nations-led High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The ministry also briefed Kim about follow-up measures to deal with the Blue House’s indignation, sources said.
The ministry, then, offered positions at two other public institutions to the candidate, who was only identified by his surname Park. Later last year, he was eventually appointed as the head of a private company that the Environment Ministry’s affiliated firm and GS Engineering and Construction jointly invested in.
Kim, however, told the prosecution that she does not recall receiving such a report from the ministry while she was attending overseas events.
The prosecution sources said they are paying attention to this particular case because it could substantiate a suspected conspiracy between the Blue House and the Environment Ministry over the appointment issue. The prosecution has already identified Shin Mi-sook, presidential secretary for balanced personnel affairs, as a suspect and asked her to submit to questioning. After Park failed to pass the application screening, the Korea Environmental Corporation decided to scrap its original schedule to recruit its head and an auditor. It then rescheduled the hiring process and appointed candidates allegedly recommended by the Blue House, the prosecution sources said.
The prosecution said the dubious appointments are suspected to be the outcome of the ministry and the Blue House officials’ interference in the public companies’ hiring processes.
A director and a manager-level official of the Environment Ministry who had been in charge of the hiring process that rejected Park were later demoted. The prosecution is also reviewing the possibility of pressing an additional abuse of power charge against former Minister Kim.
The prosecutors have obtained testimonies from the ministry’s public servants that Kim demoted the two officials, who were in charge of human resources, for failing to appoint Park.
Kim has been questioned by the prosecution three times since early February. Her latest questioning took place on Tuesday. She reportedly denied all charges against her, claiming that political appointments at public companies are a long-standing practice and that she merely followed it. Her logic is similar to the ruling by Judge Park Jeong-gil of the Seoul Eastern District Court when he rejected the prosecution’s request for a warrant to detain her last month.
At the time, Judge Park cited the longstanding practice of the Blue House and ministry officials often deciding on appointees in advance. The judge, then, concluded that Kim must not have been aware that her behavior was illegal because of such a culture.
Concerns grew in the legal community that the ruling is being used as a guideline for suspects and witnesses when they submit to questioning.
“The court used political and subjective expressions in the ruling when it stated the reasons behind its rejection of a detention warrant against Kim,” a prosecutor-turned-lawyer told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Now, it is being used as their defense.”
Prosecution sources told the JoongAng Ilbo that after her warrant hearing, Kim repeatedly told the prosecution that she thought political appointments were acceptable.
BY PARK TAE-IN, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]