Investigators question senior prosecutor over extortion allegations
Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor and close ally of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl was grilled for the first time on Wednesday by district prosecutors over allegations that he and a reporter from a right-wing outlet attempted to extort a businessman as they sought dirt on a media personality close to the administration.
Han, a former deputy head of the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office, refused to be questioned on the case during two earlier occasions, but relented Tuesday after Lee Dong-jae, the former Channel A reporter he's accused of conspiring with, was placed under pretrial detention last Friday.
The two are accused of blackmailing a convicted executive named Lee Cheol to obtain incriminating information on Rhyu Si-min, a liberal pundit with close ties to the Moon Jae-in administration.
Han insists he is innocent, claiming that forces aligned with the ruling party set him up, falsely tipping off Lee Dong-jae in an attempt to implicate Han.
Prosecutors investigating his case are believed to have questioned the senior prosecutor on whether he actively colluded with Lee Dong-jae on Feb. 13, when the two met along with one of Lee’s Channel A colleagues at the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office.
Lee’s defense team on Tuesday disclosed a written transcript of the full audio recording of that meeting to back up their claim that there was no conspiracy to frame Rhyu and that the contact Lee Dong-jae had with Lee Cheol was intended to dig up a scoop on the liberal figure.
In the transcript, the reporter told Han he sent a letter to the prison where Lee Cheol is incarcerated, explaining his attempt to establish a connection between Rhyu and an ongoing financial scandal involving Lee Cheol.
Han replied that such a report was “worth doing,” as “Rhyu has talked [about his connection to Lee], because he knows something is likely to come up.” Han then told Lee that if he pursued such a lead, the reporter was likely to "grab something" on which to build the story.
Whether this exchange constitutes a collaborative effort to target Rhyu or were just words of encouragement toward a reporter following a promising story is the main sticking point of the criminal investigation against Lee and Han, analysts say.
According to Lee’s lawyer, only around 20 percent of the approximately 20-minute conversation was related to the financial scandal in question, and if the whole exchange is taken into context “there is no conspiracy or discussion of illegal content.”
Lee’s defense team also denied speculation that their transcript of the conversation was redacted or tampered with, releasing the audio recording on Wednesday.
With a panel of experts scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the probe into Lee Dong-jae based on a request from Lee Cheol, the defense’s decision to publicly release the audio recording may be aimed at influencing that meeting.
The panel, however, only has the power to provide recommendations to the state prosecution service on how to proceed with the probe, and lacks any power to enforce decisions.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]