Ulsan vice mayor gave Blue House tip-off

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Ulsan vice mayor gave Blue House tip-off

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Song Byung-gi, Ulsan’s vice mayor for economic affairs, denies any wrongdoing Thursday during a press conference at the Ulsan Metropolitan Government office. [YONHAP]

Ulsan’s current vice mayor was the source who gave the tip-off to the Blue House accusing the former Ulsan mayor and his aides of corruption in late 2017.

On Wednesday night, hours after the Blue House announced that an unnamed “public official” gave the tip-off to a former Blue House official in October 2017, Song Byung-gi, Ulsan’s vice mayor for economic affairs, told public broadcaster KBS that the public official was him - but denied any fault on his part, saying he simply relayed the information because “the government had asked for various” tip-offs.

Song said his tip-off to the former Blue House official had “already been reported through the media,” implying he didn’t convey anything new.

In a press conference Thursday at the Ulsan Metropolitan Government office, Song stressed he didn’t have the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election in mind when he told the former Blue House official about the allegations surrounding the former Ulsan mayor.

“I have no regret about my actions, and no malicious public opinion will shake me,” Song said.

The Ulsan vice mayor said he first met the former Blue House official in late 2014 through a “friend” living in Seoul and that he and the Blue House official “maintained a friendly relationship” since then by “intermittently” exchanging phone calls and meeting each other with other friends.

While the Blue House claimed Wednesday that Song gave the former Blue House official the tip-off through a smartphone communication app, Song made no mention about this Thursday, saying he and the official were having a phone call in late 2017 when they started talking "overall about Ulsan," then "mainly discussed generally" how there were many news reports about the former Ulsan mayor's corruption allegations.

Asked about Song’s claim that he gave the tip-off to the former Blue House official thinking he was responding to the government’s request, a high-level Blue House official said Thursday that investigative authorities “will reveal whose words are right.”

The Ulsan mayor said Thursday morning on his way to work that he “didn’t know at all” that his vice mayor gave the tip-off to the Blue House, adding he would make a formal announcement about his stance later.

The former Blue House official who received the tip-off from Ulsan Vice Mayor Song was summoned by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Thursday for questioning in the election-meddling probe. Prosecutors were expected to ask him how he received the information from Song and whether he was the one who asked for the information first or whether another Blue House official asked him to speak to Song.

Prosecutors were also likely to ask how the former Blue House official handled the tip-off upon receiving it and how much he edited the information when he compiled it into a report.

The Busan Ilbo reported Wednesday that the former Blue House official denied fabricating any part of the tip-off he received from Song, highlighting he had “nothing to hide.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Blue House spokeswoman Ko Min-jung held a press briefing explaining the results of an internal investigation ordered by the president’s chief of staff and carried out by the presidential senior secretary for civil affairs office, saying that someone who formerly worked in the secretary for civil affairs office compiled a report on the former Ulsan mayor’s allegations based on a tip-off he received from an unnamed public official.

Ko stressed that the investigator who was found dead on Sunday in an apparent suicide was not the person who compiled the report. He had been dispatched from the Seoul prosecution to work at the Blue House and was set to appear before Seoul prosecutors for questioning in the election-meddling probe just hours after he was found dead.

Upon receiving the tip-off, the former Blue House official was said to have “organized” the information into a report without adding any new information, passing it on to then-Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Baek Won-woo, according to Ko.

Baek, who left the Blue House in January, “said he can’t remember the report but testified that if it was related to a corruption suspicion, it must have been passed on to the anticorruption secretary’s office, which would have referred the case to the police.”

In this process, Ko underscored that the Blue House did not carry out any investigation into former Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon, nor did it order the police to launch a probe.

The Blue House didn’t explain who the former Blue House official was, only saying he was dispatched to the Blue House from a government agency that’s not the police. Local media dug in and realized it was a former investigator from the prosecution, who currently works in the prime minister’s office.

The former Blue House official is known to have been dispatched to the presidential office at least three times, in the former conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations and the current liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

When Ulsan Vice Mayor Song gave the tip-off to the former Blue House official in October 2017, Song was known to have been part of the current Ulsan mayor’s campaign team.

The Liberty Korea Party (LKP) on Thursday filed a complaint with the prosecution accusing former and current Blue House officials as well as Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho and Ulsan Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi of meddling in the June 2018 Ulsan mayoral election.

The Blue House has been facing allegations that it compiled a report falsely accusing the aides of Ulsan’s former mayor Kim of corruption and passed the report to the police, pressuring officers to investigate them three months before the LKP-backed mayor tried to run for a second term last year - and ultimately lost to the candidate backed by the Democratic Party, current Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho.

In March 2018, Ulsan police launched a probe into Kim’s younger sibling and Kim’s chief secretary on allegations they interfered in construction deals. The police referred the cases to Ulsan prosecutors on May 11, just a month before the June 13 local elections.

In March this year, Ulsan prosecutors cleared them of their charges.

Right after they were cleared, the LKP filed a complaint against Ulsan’s former police chief who supervised the investigation, and prosecutors have since been looking into the case.

Last week, the case began to receive media attention after Ulsan prosecutors referred the case to Seoul prosecutors because most people involved were in Seoul.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG JIN-HO AND KIM SU-MIN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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