Choo's accusation against Yoon backfires
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s accusation that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl misused a special activities budget backfired Tuesday after lawmakers revealed that a chunk of the money was moved around by Choo's own ministry.
According to Rep. Cho Su-jin of the opposition People Power Party (PPP), the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice took a total of 1.03 billion won ($923,000) from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s special activities budget since January in some kind of misappropriation. Yoon is head of that office.
This year, 9.4 billion won was allocated to the special activities budget of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Offices.
The discovery was made after 13 ruling and opposition party lawmakers from the Legislation and Judiciary Committee reviewed spending records of the ministry and the prosecution. The lawmakers visited the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the ministry Monday afternoon and combed through their archives.
The inspections were triggered by accusations by Choo and Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers last week that Yoon misused the prosecution’s special activities budget to finance his political ambitions.
Yoon and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office denied the suspicion and cooperated with the inspections.
Special activities budgets 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.
Another PPP lawmaker, Rep. Jun Joo-hyae, said she found records showing suspected misappropriation of funds by the Justice Ministry.
She said the ministry took 1.06 billion won from the budget of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s special activities budget and gave it to the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the ministry.
Rep. Cho said Rep. Kim Do-eup also discovered records that 759 million won was given to the bureau. “The amounts seem to vary, because we conducted the site inspections abruptly and the ministry’s records have some discrepancies,” she said.
The PPP lawmakers said it is against the law for the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry to use funds from the prosecution’s special activities budget. Because the bureau is in charge of human resources and budget affairs of the prosecution, not investigation or intelligence gathering activities that require confidentiality, it has no right to use the funds from the special activities budget, they said.
The ministry said the bureau used the funds to support operations of correctional facilities, but the PPP lawmakers said they want a formal investigation of the spending.
The inspections also revealed that Choo made inaccurate comments before the Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Thursday to lodge a political attack at Yoon.
After criticizing the prosecutor general for “having used the special expenses accounts as if it were money in his own pocket,” Choo said Yoon did not allocate any funds to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. The district office is currently led by Lee Sung-yoon, an ally of Choo.
The lawmakers’ inspections on the usages of the special activities budgets from 2018 until this October, however, showed that the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office allocated funds to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.
According to the inspections, 16.6 percent of the annual budget of the special activities budget was given to the Seoul Central District Office in 2018, 18.6 percent in 2019 and 14.4 percent as of this October.
DP lawmakers raised the suspicion that the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office, headed by Yoon’s ally Lee Du-bong, received unreasonably large amounts, but the inspections showed that about 3 percent of the total special activities budget was allocated to the Daejeong office every year, without any fluctuation.
“Inspections showed that Choo’s arguments are groundless,” said a prosecutor. “Actually, the Justice Ministry’s practice of using the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s special activities budget was laid bare, and Choo is in a predicament.”
A conservative civic group on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint with the prosecution to investigate Choo and the head of the Criminal Affairs Bureau over allegations that they caused a loss to the state treasury.
The Solidarity for Nomocracy said Tuesday that Choo allowed the ministry to use the funds from the special activities budget for purposes other than confidential investigations. Choo is the highest decision-maker for the ministry’s spending, and the head of the Criminal Affairs Bureau is responsible for the prosecution’s budget, so they must be investigated, the civic group said.
“If the ministry misused the money for purposes other than confidential investigations, it may turn into a legal case,” said a lawyer. “It is up to the prosecution to investigate and indict Choo.”
Recently, former President Park Geun-hye was convicted of misappropriating funds from the National Intelligence Service’s special activities budget. Park was indicted on charges of receiving 3.5 billion won from the funds, and the Supreme Court found her guilty of receiving the money as bribes and incurring losses to the national treasury last November.
The Ministry of Justice issued a statement on Monday to support Choo, but it also backfired.
“Since she took office this year, Minister Choo never used any money from the prosecution’s special activities budget, as contrasted to the practices of previous years,” the ministry said.
Opposition lawmakers said the statement is a de facto admission that Choo’s predecessors — Park Sang-ki and Cho Kuk — had used the funds.
The ministry’s records also showed that 243 million won out of the 1.5 billion won of special activities budget was allocated for use by the minister in 2018. In 2019, the minister was given 335 million won out of the 1.5 billion won budget.
This year, no amount was allocated for the use by the minister.
The ministry said it will stop the practice of allowing the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to distribute the money to district offices and take charge of management and distribution of it.
The ministry said it will continue the internal probe into Yoon’s alleged misuse of the special activities budget.
BY SER MYO-JA, KIM MIN-SANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]