Cho answers questions in ex-vice mayor probe

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Cho answers questions in ex-vice mayor probe

Cho Kuk, the former presidential senior secretary for civil affairs who resigned from his post as justice minister in October, answered all questions from prosecutors Monday as he was summoned over allegations that he ordered a cover-up of bribery accusations against the former vice mayor of Busan. This came in contrast to his previous rounds of questioning in a separate probe, when Cho exercised his right to silence.

A spokesperson for the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office in Songpa District, southern Seoul, said Tuesday that Cho “testified in detail” on Monday before returning home after about 11 hours.

Cho had arrived at the office at 9:30 a.m. Monday through an underground route that was off-limits to the press. He was summoned as a defendant. It was his first questioning in the widening probe surrounding Yoo Jae-soo, Busan’s former vice mayor for economic affairs.

Since Nov. 14, Cho was summoned three times by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to answer questions in a separate probe that’s digging into his family’s private equity fund investments and his daughter’s college admissions scandal.

But on every occasion, he refused to respond. Cho’s lawyers said Cho made his stance clear several times to the public about the accusations against his family and said that he didn’t see the point of answering questions to prosecutors when they seemed to have already drawn the conclusion to indict him.

Cho, apparently, chose to go with a different strategy in the ex-Busan vice mayor probe because prosecutors said he specifically elaborated on what had happened two years ago - and denied any fault in the alleged cover-up, saying the case was closed along “a normal process.”

Legal experts believe Cho thought it would be far more advantageous for him to respond to the questions from prosecutors in the Yoo probe, instead of ignoring them, because other former Blue House officials blamed Cho for ordering the cover-up.

Prosecutors said they were planning to summon Cho again in the near future.

Cho served as President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for civil affairs from May 2017 to July 2019, and during this time, he supervised the office of the secretary for anticorruption, which oversaw the so-called special inspection bureau. The bureau was in charge of monitoring top government officials tapped by Moon, as well as his relatives, for possible corruption.

According to a former member of the bureau, it received a tip-off in late 2017 saying Yoo, who at the time was a high-level official in the Financial Services Commission, received huge bribes from company executives. The bureau started investigating the case, but soon after, the probe was forced to halt due to an unknown “order from above,” said the former bureau member.

The former bureau member thinks it was Cho, and formally filed a complaint with the prosecution last February accusing him of dereliction of duty.

According to sources with information about Cho’s latest questioning on Monday, Cho testified he didn’t decide to halt the Yoo probe alone and that the final call was made in a three-person meeting that was also attended by Moon’s former secretary for civil affairs, Baek Won-woo, and Moon’s former secretary for anticorruption, Park Hyoung-chul.

Cho was said to have continued that although he held the “ultimate political responsibility” for closing the Yoo probe, he was “acting within the range of the authority given to a senior secretary for civil affairs” and that the process to reach the final conclusion was a “normal” one.

Cho’s testimony went against Park’s. Park reportedly testified to prosecutors that Cho solely made the decision to end the Yoo investigation.

BY JEONG JIN-HO, LEE GA-YOUNG AND LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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