Dueling probes will target expenses accounts for prosecution, Justice Ministry
Lawmakers on Monday took the rare step of conducting inspections of spending records in special expenses accounts held by the prosecution and the Justice Ministry.
Ruling and opposition party lawmakers on the Legislation and Judiciary Committee visited the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in southern Seoul Monday afternoon to review the records. The inspections were triggered by accusations lodged by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers last week that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl has misused the prosecution’s "special activities" budget to finance his political ambitions.
Special expenses accounts exist for almost all government offices for activities that require confidentiality. Because no receipts are required, the accounts are often suspected of being used for non-official purposes.
“The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office received 9.4 billion won [$8.45 million] in its special expenses account this year and will receive 8.4 billion won next year, and it has spent the money at its own discretion,” Choo said during the Legislation and Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday. “The Justice Ministry has no idea how the money was spent because the prosecution never reported the information to us.”
Choo also criticized Yoon for “having used the fund as if it were money in his own pocket.”
DP Lawmakers also raised suspicions that Yoon was misappropriating the funds.
“Speculation is growing that Yoon will run in the presidential election. A potential presidential candidate is spending 9.4 billion won of cash without receipts one year ahead of the presidential election,” said Rep. Kim Jong-min of the DP. “How is this possible?”
On Friday, Choo subsequently ordered the internal inspection headquarters of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to launch an investigation into how Yoon had operated the prosecution’s special expenses accounts.
The opposition People Power Party (PPP) then countered the move by demanding an inspection into the Justice Ministry’s spending of its special expenses accounts. Lawmakers on the Legislation and Judiciary Committee later agreed to conduct parallel probes on both the prosecution and the ministry.
On Monday, lawmakers reviewed spending records of the special expenses accounts of the prosecution and the Justice Ministry from January 2018 through this October.
“Although the spending details of the special expenses accounts are not publicized to maintain confidentiality, it is required to keep records of supporting documents on how the money was allocated and spent,” said a DP lawmaker. “Our inspections will focus on if the documents were kept properly and if the prosecution and the ministry had respected spending guidelines.”
Following Choo and the DP’s attacks, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said it has maintained proper records. “The prosecution has created monthly and quarterly spending plans for the special expenses accounts and followed them,” the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said. “When an additional amount is spent due to a special circumstance, we have kept records.”
The Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry allocates the prosecution’s budget for the special expenses accounts to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office allocate the funds to district offices, taking into account their demands in investigations and intelligence-gathering activities.
Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) chief Choe Jae-hyeong also said at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the prosecutor general has no power over the special expenses accounts.
“The budget is allocated to the Justice Ministry,” he said. “When we audited the ministry, we already checked how it allocated the budget and if it was following the guidelines. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office was only following the ministry’s orders, so we didn’t have to audit this when we audited the prosecution.”
Of the 9.4 billion won of this year’s budget, the ministry reportedly kept 1 or 2 billion won for its own special expenses account and gave the rest to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. Civic groups said it is illegal for the ministry to receive the budget, because it does not conduct any intelligence gathering or investigation activities that require confidentiality.
“It is possible that Minister Choo had misappropriated the money from the special expenses accounts,” Lee Jong-bae, head of a conservative civic group, Solidarity for Nomocracy, said Sunday. The civic group filed a criminal complaint to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to investigate Choo for suspected misappropriation of special expenses accounts.
Rep. Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the PPP, also criticized Choo for using money in the prosecution’s special expenses accounts. “The Justice Ministry is not supposed to have special expenses accounts, but the ministry has been misappropriating some of the prosecution’s budget through a loophole,” Joo said.
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]