Justice Ministry criticized for attempt to influence probe

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Justice Ministry criticized for attempt to influence probe

The Ministry of Justice is facing criticism for its attempt to influence ongoing investigations into the family of Justice Minister Cho Kuk, following media reports that it proposed to the prosecution to exclude Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from the probe but was rebuffed.

Vice Minister of Justice Kim Oh-soo contacted a senior official of the Supreme Prosecutors Office on Monday and discussed the probes into Cho’s family, shortly after Cho was formally appointed, sources in the ministry and the prosecution said Tuesday. According to the sources, Kim proposed that an independent investigation team, free from Yoon’s command, be formed to conduct the investigation.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office indicted Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, last week for forging an academic award for their daughter, which was later used for her admission to a medical school. The prosecutors are also investigating a private equity fund, operated by Cho’s relative and invested in mainly by Cho’s wife and two children.

According to the prosecutors, a director-level official of the Justice Ministry also made the same proposal to a senior prosecutor of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. Yoon, however, rejected the proposal because it would only question the neutrality of the probe, the sources said.

Although the proposal of an independent investigation team is extraordinary, it is not unprecedented. In February last year, the prosecution formed an independent team to investigate employment misconducts of Kangwon Land casino resort, after a prosecutor revealed pressure from a politician and prosecutors from the upper chain of command to influence the probe.

The Justice Ministry said Tuesday that it was only an exchange of a possible idea. It also denied that Cho was briefed about the proposal. “Cho won’t receive any reports from the prosecution about the probes or exercise his authority to command the investigations,” a ministry official said.

Cho also said Wednesday that he had not known about the proposal. “I only learned about it after reading media reports,” Cho said. “Because it is a sensitive time, we must be careful about what we say and how we act.”

Criticism was high that the Justice Ministry’s proposal amounts to an attempt to influence the ongoing probes, because the ministry has the right to make appointments of the prosecutors. The first thing Cho did after taking office was appoint a non-prosecutor to head the campaign to reform the prosecution.

On Tuesday, Cho appointed Hwang Hee-seok, head of the Human Rights Bureau of the ministry, as the chief of a team to reform the prosecution. Hwang was a member of the liberal civic group, Lawyers for a Democratic Society. He joined the Justice Ministry in 2017.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) condemned the Justice Ministry on Wednesday, adding the time has come for the party to operate a campaign to not only oust Cho but also President Moon Jae-in.

“Immediately after Cho was appointed, the ministry attempted to exclude Prosecutor General Yoon from the probes,” said Rep. Chung Woo-taik at a party leadership meeting. “The prosecution must lay bare the truth based on law and principle.”

“Reforming the prosecution means guaranteeing the prosecution’s independence and neutrality in investigations,” Rep. Lee Ju-young said. “But the ministry is going against it by pressuring the probes into the Chos.”

“This is a de facto dictatorship,” Lee continued. “Cho is acting shamelessly as if he is the [Joseph] Goebbels of President Moon. The time has come for the people to abandon the president.”

“No matter what its intention was, the ministry’s attempt to intervene in ongoing probes of the prosecution is more than enough to cause speculations among prosecutors and politicians that it was trying to shake the independence of the investigations,” a lawyer, who had served as a head of a high prosecutors’ office, told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Others also said it is unlikely that the vice justice minister and a senior ministry official contacted the prosecution and made the proposal without Cho’s sanction.

The JoongAng Ilbo contacted Vice Minister Kim for comments, but he was unreachable.

Kim was an elite member of the prosecution who lost the competition to become the prosecutor general to Yoon in May.

Meanwhile, Rep. You Min-bong of the LKP released a transcript of Cho’s relative’s phone conversations with a businessman, in which they had discussed possible perjury related to private equity fund investments by the Cho family before Cho’s confirmation hearing last week.

The transcript was a conversation between Cho’s cousin’s son, the suspected owner of the private equity fund in which Cho’s wife and two children invested 1.4 billion won($1.18 million), and the CEO of Wellscnt, a technology company invested by the fund. The Wellscnt CEO was only identified by the surname Choi.

Prosecutors are trying to figure out whether Cho, who worked as the presidential senior secretary for civil affairs from May 2017 to July 2019, pulled strings to help Wellscnt win contracts to the benefit of his family.

In August 2017, the fund invested 1.38 billion won in Wellscnt, becoming the largest shareholder.

Soon after, Wellscnt’s performance started to take off as it landed deals with numerous local government offices and public companies.

According to the lawmaker, the conversation between Cho’s relative and Choi took place earlier in August, ahead of Cho’s confirmation hearing. The transcript was submitted to the prosecution on Aug. 25, Rep. You said.

The relative, who left the country in mid August after the private equity fund scandal was reported by media, expressed concerns that Cho would be accused of conflict of interest and lose the justice minister nomination.

“Our investment into the IMF will be tied to the administration’s policy to promote the battery industry,” Cho’s relative told Choi in the transcript, referring to Wellscnt’s investment in a secondary cell producer of Iksung, a Hyundai Motor supply.

Wellscnt made the investment shorty after the Cho family invested in the firm.

“It will become undeniable that we made the investment based on [our prior knowledge of] the policy,” Cho’s relative said. “It will cause a problem of conflict of interest.”

In the transcript, he asked Choi to lie about the money flow of the investments Wellscnt had received. “This is a case where we all die together,” he said. “Cho will fall with us.”

In his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on Friday, Cho said he does not know his relative’s role in operating the private equity fund. “If he was involved, it will be confirmed through raids,” Cho said at the time.

BY SER MYO-JA, PARK TAE-IN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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