Politicians trade accusations of downplaying wealth in official reports
Ruling and opposition lawmakers are accusing each other of intentionally omitting large amounts of personal wealth when they filed assets reports to the election watchdog before the April general elections.
The finger-pointing started earlier this month, when Rep. Cho Su-jin of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) was criticized for having reported a substantially smaller amount of wealth to the National Election Commission (NEC) before the general elections.
Before the elections in April, Cho filed a report to the NEC that she owned 1.85 billion won ($1.56 million) of wealth as of Dec. 31, 2019. But the assets report by the lawmaker, disclosed on Aug. 28, showed that her wealth was 3 billion won as of May 30, 2020.
Cho worked as a reporter for the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and Channel A for 20 years. She received the No. 1 spot in the PPP’s proportional candidacy list to start her political career.
Many ruling Democratic Party (DP) members raised a suspicion that she had intentionally omitted 1.1 billion won worth of wealth when she filed the report.
In a Facebook message on Sept. 5, Cho said the omission of some of her wealth was an honest mistake. She said she quit the newspaper on March 5 and had little time to prepare the paperwork by the deadline on March 26. She said she failed to include 500 million won of money she had lent to someone, as well as 600 million won in her severance pay and her husband’s cash deposit.
The DP questioned Cho’s integrity. Rep. Huh Young, spokesman for the DP, said on Sept. 7 that filing a false wealth report is a criminal offense that could cause her to lose her seat.
“During the 18th National Assembly, then-lawmaker Jeong Kuk-kyo [of the DP] had lost his seat for having failed to declare all his wealth,” Huh said. “Who can possibly believe that it was an honest mistake to forget 1.1 billion won?”
In the face of the DP’s attacks, Cho launched a counterattack on Wednesday. She said some DP lawmakers had also omitted some of their assets when they filed reports to the NEC in March.
“I have compared the DP lawmakers’ campaign materials with the latest report on the lawmakers’ wealth,” Cho said. “And I saw multiple omissions.”
She then raised issues against nine DP lawmakers, including Kim Hong-gul, the third son of the late President Kim Dae-jung.
Rep. Kim, a first-term proportional representative for the DP, said he owns 5.8 billion won worth of assets in March. In the latest report in August, his wealth amounted to 6.77 billion won.
Although Kim owns four homes, including the ownership right to one apartment, Kim only said he owns three properties.
According to Kim, his wife purchased the ownership right to an apartment in Godeok-dong, Gangdong District of eastern Seoul in 2016 and sold it this February. The property right was supposed to be included in Kim’s wealth report, but was omitted.
According to an MBC report on Thursday, Kim’s wife made massive real estate investments from June until December 2016. She purchased an apartment in Ilwon-dong, Gangnam District, in June 2016. She then purchased the property right for the Godeok-dong apartment in October. Two months later, she purchased an apartment in Banpo-dong, Seocho District of southern Seoul.
Real estate experts said she spent at least 1.7 billion won to buy the three properties within six months.
Including the residence of the late President Kim in Donggyo-dong, western Seoul, Rep. Kim was supposed to declare four properties when he filed the wealth reports to the NEC before the elections. But he didn't include the Godeok-dong apartment.
Kim said he does not manage the wealth himself, so he didn’t know that his wife had purchased the ownership right.
Kim also reported to the NEC that his wife owns half of a commercial property in Seodaemun District. She, however, was the sole owner of the property.
As a result, Kim omitted 900 million won worth of wealth when he filed a report to the NEC before the elections.
One of the country’s largest civic groups on Friday demanded that the NEC take legal action against Cho and Kim.
The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) said Friday in a statement that the amounts of omitted wealth are too large to be honest mistakes.
The PSPD said the NEC must file criminal petitions to the prosecution. It also said the National Assembly’s Public Service Ethics Committee must start an investigation to scrutinize the wealth reports of all 300 lawmakers.
“Offering false information of wealth is a serious criminal act because it can influence the voters,” said the PSPD. “And yet, the two lawmakers are giving lame excuses that they were just mistakes.”
The PSPD said Reps. Cho and Kim must apologize to the people and cooperate with investigation. It also said the DP and the PPP are responsible for nominating them without thorough vetting.
The PSPD also criticized the NEC for its failed oversight.
“After it became aware of the cases, it should have started a legal process. How come nothing has been done?” the civic group asked. “The statute of limitations is still alive, so the NEC must bring the cases to the prosecution right now.”
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]