Whistleblower alleges hanky panky over travel ban
The Supreme Prosecutors' Office on Wednesday assigned the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office to investigate a suspicion that the Ministry of Justice circumvented the law in 2019 to issue an overseas travel ban on a former vice justice minister as a part of a probe into bribes and sexual favors.
The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission recently received a complaint from a whistleblower saying the Ministry of Justice and a factfinding team of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office had illegally banned Kim Hak-eui, who briefly served as vice minister of justice in the Park Geun-hye administration, from leaving the country on March 23, 2019, the JoongAng Ilbo reported Monday.
At the time, the Moon Jae-in administration started a reinvestigation into a suspicion that Kim had received sexual favors and bribes from businessmen from 2006 to 2009 when he was a senior prosecutor.
Kim resigned as vice justice minister in March 2013 after six days in the job, after a video circulated that appeared to show him engaging in sexual intercourse with a woman at a party. He was investigated by the prosecution in 2013 and 2014, but cleared each time. On March 18, 2019, President Moon Jae-in ordered a reinvestigation, and the factfinding team of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office started the third probe.
According to the whistleblower’s complaint, Prosecutor Lee Gyu-won of the factfinding team requested the Immigration Office of Incheon International Airport to stop Kim’s departure from the country. The complaint said Kim was not a criminal suspect in any investigation when the request was made.
Under the Immigration Act, an emergency overseas travel ban is only applied on a criminal suspect if he or she is accused of a felony punishable by heavier than three years in jail and if there is a concern of flight or evidence destruction.
Kim was stopped from leaving the country at Incheon International Airport on March 23, 2019. Holding a boarding pass for a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, scheduled for 12:20 a.m., Kim passed immigration at 10:48 p.m. the previous night and moved to the terminal.
Just 10 minutes before departure, he was stopped by immigration officers from boarding the plane. It was later revealed that Lee had requested an emergency travel ban at 12:08 a.m., just two minutes earlier.
Lee used the case number of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office’s initial investigation in 2013. Kim had already been cleared in that investigation.
According to the complaint, Lee used a fabricated case number for subsequent paperwork. In the application for the emergency travel ban submitted to Justice Minister Park Sang-ki six hours after stopping Kim from leaving the country, Lee used case number “2019 preliminary investigation 1” from the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office. No such case existed.
Lee, as a prosecutor assigned to a factfinding team, also had no authority to request a travel ban for Kim. An emergency travel ban is supposed to be requested by the head of a district office to the minister of justice, but Lee bypassed the chain of command and stopped Kim from leaving the country.
The whistleblower said three Justice Ministry employees accessed Kim’s travel records 177 times without legal grounds. They accessed Kim’s records from 9:12 a.m. on March 19, 2019 till 11:50 p.m. on March 22, 2019, the whistleblower said, accusing the ministry for having conducted illegal surveillance on Kim.
The factfinding team’s renewed inquiry eventually led to prosecutors indicting Kim in June 2019 on several counts of bribery, including that he allegedly received sexual favors from multiple women on 13 different occasions from July 2006 to December 2007; received a total of 31 million ($28,000) won from a businessman in the form of cash, checks and valuables like a painting and luxury clothing; and took 43 million won in bribes from another businessman from October 2000 to May 2011.
Though a district court acquitted him of multiple bribery charges, the Seoul High Court in October 2020 ruled there was sufficient evidence to convict Kim on one of the bribery charges, although not the one related to sexual favors. He was sentenced to two years and six months in prison and taken into custody from the courtroom.
Following the JoongAng Ilbo report on the whistleblower's revelation, the Ministry of Justice said bypassing the legitimate process was unavoidable. "At the time, a former senior public servant, accused of a serious crime, was about to leave the country late at night. It was an urgent circumstance," the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) is demanding an independent counsel probe into the suspicion that the Moon government breached the law to go after Kim.
The PPP also said it filed a criminal complaint with the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office last month to start an investigation into suspected legal violations committed during the reinvestigation, separately from the whistleblower’s complaint filed to the Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission. The case was initially assigned to the Anyang Branch Office of the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office.
The Anyang branch, however, did not immediately start a probe. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said Wednesday that it gave the case to the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office to start a full investigation.
BY SER MYO-JA, HA NAM-HYUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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