Top prosecutor questioned as criminal suspect
Lee Sung-yoon, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, was questioned as a criminal suspect over an allegation that he stopped prosecutors from looking into an illegal travel ban against a scandal-plagued former vice minister in 2019.
Lee was questioned by the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
It was the first time that the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office – the largest such office in the country, which handles many high-profile cases - was questioned as a criminal suspect.
Suwon prosecutors are investigating a suspicion that the Ministry of Justice circumvented the law in 2019 to slap an overseas travel ban on former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui in order to probe allegations that he took bribes and sexual favors from businessmen from 2006 to 2009. The ministry and a prosecutor from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office were accused of having illegally banned Kim from leaving the country on March 23, 2019.
Kim resigned as vice justice minister in March 2013 after six days on the job, following the circulation of a video 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.
A third probe, ordered by President Moon Jae-in, was done by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in March 2019. Kim was jailed in October 2020 after an appellate court overturned his earlier acquittal on a bribery charge.
A criminal complaint filed in February said the Anyang Branch of the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office noticed in 2019 that the ministry and Prosecutor Lee Gyu-won of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office had broken laws to issue an travel ban on Kim. While Anyang Branch prosecutors tried to pursue an investigation, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office pressured them to drop the case, the complaint said.
At the time, Lee Sung-yoon was the Anti-corruption Department Chief of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. He is accused of pressuring the Anyang Branch to drop the case.
Until recently, Lee was listed as a witness in the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office’s current probe. He became a suspect after the complaint was filed.
The Suwon prosecution has sent four subpoenas to Lee, but he refused to submit to questioning. Lee has said the case should be investigated by the newly launched Corruption Investigation Office (CIO) for high-ranking public officials.
Suwon prosecutors pursued the probe without questioning Lee and recently decided to indict him. They concluded that they had gathered enough evidence to indict him, sources in the prosecution said.
Lee abruptly informed the investigation team on Thursday that he was willing to be questioned and showed up on Saturday.
On Saturday, Lee also released a statement through his lawyer explaining why he decided to submit to questioning. The lawyer said Lee was waiting for the prosecution and the CIO to coordinate which office would investigate him. “Because the media started reporting that Lee will be prosecuted, he needed to tell the prosecution his position,” the statement said.
“Lee and other prosecutors under his supervision at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office at the time never pressured the Anyang Branch to drop the case [in 2019],” the statement said. “When the travel ban was issued on Kim on March 22, 2019, Lee never intervened in the process.”
It remains to be seen if the probe will put a damper on Lee’s prospect as the next prosecutor general. Following Yoon Seok-youl’s resignation in March, the post has remained vacant.
A candidate nomination committee will soon be formed, and Lee has long been considered the most likely candidate.
BY KANG KWANG-WOO, SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]