Fireworks from start of top prosecutor's discipline hearing
An unprecedented disciplinary hearing against Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl began Thursday, and the Ministry of Justice’s tribunal rejected his motions to disqualify four out of five participants in the process for alleged bias against him.
The disciplinary hearing for Yoon, who was appointed by President Moon Jae-in in July 2019, started in the morning and was prompted by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s accusation last month that the nation's top prosecutor was suspected of six counts of ethical and legal misconduct. She said an internal investigation uncovered the lapses, including Yoon’s alleged ordering of illegal surveillance of a judge.
Yoon is the first prosecutor general to face such a disciplinary process. The hearing started at 10:35 a.m. and according to the law governing the process, the hearing was operated like a criminal trial.
Yoon was represented by three lawyers. Yoon, who has denied all charges, did not attend the hearing.
Yoon’s lawyers started off by demanding the hearing be rescheduled, complaining that the ministry did not offer them basic information to prepare for his defense. They said the ministry refused to name the panel members or give details of the report that Choo had used to bring charges against Yoon. Yoon’s lawyers only became aware of the panel members’ identities after the hearing started on Thursday.
The panel rejected the request and ordered a recess one hour into the hearing. The lawyers were told to file motions to disqualify panel members they objected to when the session resumed in the afternoon.
According to the law governing the process, the disciplinary committee is comprised of seven members including the justice minister and vice minister of justice. The justice minister picks the other five — two prosecutors and three outside experts.
For Yoon’s disciplinary hearing, Choo picked Shin Seong-sik, head of the Anti-corruption Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, and Shim Jae-cheol, head of the Internal Inspection Bureau of the Ministry of Justice.
She also appointed Chung Han-joong, a law professor from Hankook University of Foreign Studies; Ahn Jean, a law professor from Chonnam National University; and Choi Tae-hyeong, a lawyer, as three outside members of the committee. Choi, however, did not attend the hearing on Thursday.
Since Choo is the petitioner who brought the charges against Yoon, she did not participate in the process. With Choi absent, the hearing started with five members, and Chung served as acting chairman.
Yoon’s lawyers demanded that Vice Minister Lee Yong-gu, Professors Chung and Ahn and Shim of the Justice Ministry be disqualified for apparent biases against Yoon. Of the five panel members who attended the hearing, the lawyers only accepted the participation of Shin.
Chung is member of a nongovernmental group, the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, that has been a patron of the Moon administration. Since Moon took office, Chung has served on a factfinding committee led by the Justice Ministry to uncover misconduct and abuse of power by the prosecution in the past.
In a recent media interview, Chung endorsed Choo’s argument that Yoon had breached his duty to maintain political neutrality as prosecutor general.
Ahn is also a critic of the prosecution. She served on the prosecution reform committee of the Justice Ministry since Moon took office.
Vice Justice Minister Lee, appointed by Moon last week, is a key ally of the administration. The former judge had headed the Legal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry since August 2017. When Choo was nominated as justice minister, he prepared her for her confirmation hearing.
He also headed the preparation team to launch the Corruption Investigation Office for high-ranking officials, established to weaken the powers of the prosecution. It is the first state organization permitted to take over some powers of the prosecution.
Following Yoon's lawyers' request to disqualify four out of five members, the panel asked the lawyers to leave the room, held a closed discussion and struck down the motions. The tribunal said Yoon’s lawyers were abusing their right by demanding disqualification of four out of five members.
Shim of the Justice Ministry, however, recused himself, leaving only four members to decide Yoon's fate.
Yoon’s lawyers cried foul about Shim’s timing because he took part in the decision-making process to reject the motions and then recused himself.
According to the law, at least four members of the panel must participate in a vote to rule on a disqualification motion. Because the member subject to disqualification cannot participate in the vote, there would have been only three members left to vote if Shim had recused himself before the voting.
Yoon’s lawyers said Shim participated in the vote to make sure the motions were rejected. “Shim recused himself from the panel obviously because he agrees that he is unfit to serve, but he tainted the hearing by participating in the vote before recusing himself,” one of Yoon’s lawyers said.
With the four members attending the afternoon session, Yoon’s lawyers asked the committee to call eight people as witnesses. Some of them were prosecutors critical of Choo’s decision to start the disciplinary action against Yoon, such as the Justice Ministry’s internal inspector Ryu Hyeok, while others were allies of Choo such as Lee Sung-yoon, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.
The panel was expected to take some time to reach a decision on that request.
After Yoon’s lawyers present their cases, the committee members will decide whether to punish Yoon or not and what the punishment should be.
It requires a majority of the four panel members to make a decision, meaning three members.
The panel can decide to clear Yoon or to issue no punishment even if they think he was guilty of some misconduct. Other possible punishments range from a salary cut to dismissal.
If the panel approves a punishment, Choo must make the recommendation to the president and the president will have to execute it. The Blue House has said Moon will follow the process if the disciplinary committee approves a punishment against Yoon.
It remained to be seen if the panel would allow all witnesses selected by Yoon to testify. The hearing ended Thursday night without announcing a conclusion.
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]