July 3. (by Park Jong-sik
By Kim Tae-gyu, staff reporter
At a meeting of Blue House secretaries on Sept. 30 of last year, President Lee Myung-bak famously said, “This administration needs consider the fact that it came about through an election where no money was taken. As a morally perfect administration, we cannot leave behind even the smallest blemish.”
The remarks, which came as the administration was nearing its final year, were intended to set it apart from the Roh Moo-hyun administration and its election fund-raising scandal from 2002.
Corruption cases involving presidential associates have been a consistent theme in past administrations, but the Lee administration is distinct in how quickly they surfaced and how many there have been.
Now, with the president’s older brother, former New Frontier Party lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk, being interrogated on charges of accepting hundreds of millions of won during the 2007 presidential race, the difference between the president’s description and reality has come into stark relief.
The elder Lee appeared before the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul on July 3. There, he was questioned on allegations that he received hundreds of millions of won from Solomon Savings Bank and an unidentified business. After getting out of the car with his attorney and entourage, Lee was seen stumbling as he walked up the stairs.
Before heading inside, he described the experience as “heartbreaking” to journalists who asked about his feelings.
Prosecutors plan to ask for a preliminary arrest warrant for Lee on charges of violating the Political Fund Act and accepting bribes. In response to questions about whether the allegations were true, Lee said he would “go and answer to the best of my abilities.”
When asked whether he had anything to say about the Blue House, a slightly agitated Lee said, “I just told you it was heartbreaking.”
Corruption scandals involving presidential associates have consistently dogged the administration. The first came just six months after Lee took office, with Kim Ok-hee, the wife of Lee’s cousin being arrested for taking three billion won in exchange for Grand National Party proportional representation nomination assurances in February and March 2008.
In November, KORAIL president Kang Kyung-ho, was arrested for accepting 50 million won to ensure the reappointment of the chief of the Kangwon Land leisure industry office. Formerly with the Hyundai Group, Kang is a close associate of the president who served as president of the Seoul Subway while Lee was Mayor of Seoul. In December 2010, he took over as president of DAS, an auto parts company suspected of being the property of Lee under an assumed name.
In 2009, it emerged that Blue House public affairs and planning secretary Chu Bu-gil, the so-called “evangelist of the Four Major Rivers Project,” had taken 200 million won from Taekwang Industrial chairman Park Yeon-cha to make a tax audit go away.
Sejoong Namo Tour chairman Chun Shin-il, a friend of Lee’s for some fifty years who served as chairman of the Korea University alumni association, was arrested in December 2010 on charges of taking 4.7 billion won from a company president for carrying out various requests.
Starting in early 2011, seemingly every major case exposed monetary and gift transactions involving key associates in the Lee administration. One case involving the transfer of operation rights for a construction site restaurant shocked many when it emerged that Bae Geon-gi, an inspection team leader for the office of the senior secretary for civil affairs in the Blue House, took 20 million won in under-the-table money. An investigation into illegal lobbying by Busan Savings Bank resulted in two high-profile arrests: former Board of Audit and Inspection auditing committee member Eun Jin-soo, who made a name for himself with his service as leader of team responding to BBK allegations during Lee’s election campaign in 2007, was charged with taking 170 million won, and public affairs secretary Kim Du-woo, an aide to the president throughout the administration, was accused of taking 100 million won.
Former KT&G Social Welfare Foundation chairman Kim Jae-hong, was also found to have taken around 400 million won from Jeil Savings Bank. Kim is the husband of Lee’s cousin.
As the end of the administration’s term drew closer, the rank of prison-bound associates rose. In November of last year, former vice culture minister Shin Jae-min, 54, was arrested for taking around 100 million won in bribes. Former vice knowledge economy minister Park Young-joon, 52, was accused of taking some 200 million won from Pi-City and other construction companies in exchange for permits and approvals. Known to some as the “king of vice ministers,” Park was seen as a representative example of vice ministers running the show in government agencies.
Also accused of receiving money from Pi-City was Choi See-joong. The 75-year-old former Korea Communications Commission chairman, who has been described as Lee‘s “mentor,” allegedly took some 800 million won.
The fact that both of them received their payments around the time of the presidential election in 2007 undermines Lee’s claim that the administration came about “through an election where no money was taken.”
Quoting the famous dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an official with the prosecutors said, “It seems to come from the arrogant belief that they‘ll be able to get away with things by calling in a request, since the administration is in charge of investigative bodies like the police and prosecutors.”
Some analysts said the cases represent Lee’s governing style, which is far from “morally perfect.” Lee is suspected by many of being the ringleader behind controversial plans to build a residence in Seoul’s Naegok neighborhood, as well as illegal surveillance of civilians by the Office of the Prime Minister.
Another official with the prosecutors drew an analogy to the “Records of the Three Kingdoms,” a Chinese historical text from the 3rd century. “The subjects there were all serving a master like themselves,” the official said.
“A lot of this is the result of a president who thinks that a few moral blemishes are okay as long as you do a good job,” the official added.
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