Top prosecutor indicted, shows no signs of stepping down
Lee Sung-yoon, a top prosecutor once considered a rising star of the Moon Jae-in administration’s prosecution, was indicted Wednesday on charges of obstructing an investigation in 2019 into an illegal travel ban against a former vice minister.
The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office said Wednesday that it indicted Lee, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, on charges of abusing his power to obstruct a probe into a travel ban slapped on a scandal-plagued former vice minister in 2019.
Over the past few months, Suwon prosecutors have been investigating a suspicion that the Ministry of Justice circumvented the law in 2019 to issue an overseas travel ban on former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui in order to probe allegations that he took bribes and sexual favors arranged by businessmen from 2006 to 2009.
Cha Gyu-geun, a senior ministry official, and Lee Gyu-won, a prosecutor from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, were indicted for having illegally banned Kim from leaving the country on March 23, 2019.
Earlier this year, a criminal complaint was filed saying that the Anyang Branch of the Suwon District Prosecutors' Office noticed that the travel ban appeared to be illegal. When Anyang Branch prosecutors tried to investigate, 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 was accused of pressuring the Anyang Branch to drop the case.
Lee, who has been denying the charges, issued a statement 10 minutes after the indictment was filed.
“I apologize for troubling the people about this investigation,” he said. “It is regretful that I was indicted at last, although I have explained during the questioning in detail what happened at the time.”
He said he had never broken the law when he was serving as the anti-corruption chief of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. “I will lay bare the truth through trial and restore the honor of the anti-corruption department,” Lee said.
The indictment was made two days after an outside expert panel recommended the Suwon prosecution wrap up the probe and indict Lee. Although the panel convened to evaluate the validity of the probe at the request of Lee, its members overwhelmingly voted in support of Lee’s indictment.
Accepting the recommendation, Acting Prosecutor General Cho Nam-kwan on Tuesday gave a green light to indict Lee.
Cho ordered the Suwon office to indict Lee on behalf of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office so that the trial will take place at the Seoul Central District Court.
It remains to be seen if Lee will undergo his trial as the Seoul prosecution chief. Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said Tuesday that he has no plan to remove Lee from the post even after his indictment.
Lee was considered a star prosecutor of the Moon administration, particularly after the administration started a so-called war against former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.
After Moon took office, Lee was named the head of the Criminal Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in August 2017. He then headed the Anti-corruption Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office from June 2018 till July 2019.
From July 2019 till January 2020, Lee served as the head of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice. He was named the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in January 2020.
After Yoon resigned from his prosecutor general position in March, a move considered a slap in the face to the Moon administration, Lee was often referred to as a possible successor by the media. Moon, however, nominated former Vice Minister of Justice Kim Oh-soo for prosecutor general earlier this month.
Politicians increasingly demanded that Lee step down. Even Rep. Back Hye-ryun of the ruling Democratic Party, a former prosecutor, urged him to make a bold decision.
“Keeping a criminal suspect as the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is an insult to the people,” Kim Ye-ryoung, spokesperson of the main opposition People Power Party, said. She also criticized Justice Minister Park for keeping Lee on the job.
Prosecutors are also demanding Lee’s resignation. “How can he dare to keep the post while he was indicted for a serious charge?” asked one prosecutor. “It is an unspoken law in the legal community that judges and prosecutors who are criminal suspects must be excluded from the investigative and judicial works.”
Another senior prosecutor also criticized the administration. “In the prosecution and the Justice Ministry, many are undergoing investigations and trials,” he said. “And yet, they saw no disadvantages. Some of them actually were promoted. Is this what this administration means by a prosecutorial reform?”
In the past, senior prosecutors have voluntarily resigned or were removed from key posts when they faced investigations.
BY SER MYO-JA, KIM SU-MIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]