Probe of Land Development Scandal Must Be Independent

      October 15, 2021 13:03

      Seoul Central District Prosecutor Lee Jung-soo told lawmakers Thursday that Minjoo Party presidential candidate and Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung is "included among the targets" of an investigation into the land development scandal. "We are trying to find out the truth," he added piously, but the way the probe is being conducted does not bear that out. Prosecutors only searched Seongnam City Hall on Friday morning, more than 20 days into the investigation, giving officials there plenty of time to shred the evidence. It is common knowledge that a speedy search often determines the success or failure of such an investigation.

      At the crux of the scandal is exactly who was responsible for allowing a small group of people to reap astronomical profits from the project in the Daejang-dong district of Seongnam south of Seoul. Seongnam Development Corp., wholly run by the city, came up with a preliminary plan in 2015 to have the city retrieve extra profits from the project, but that part of the plan was apparently scrapped just seven hours later. City regulations stipulate that any major gains or losses from the project must be reported to the mayor, who happened to be Lee Jae-myung. The man who was in charge of the project, Yoo Dong-gyu, has been arrested for taking massive kickbacks, but how could he possibly have unilaterally decided on the profit-sharing scheme of the biggest development project the city had ever seen? Lee was the top decision maker of the city, and must surely have been briefed and given the final go ahead. Lee told reporters as recently as last month that he "designed" the "successful" project, and before it got underway a special rule was enacted by the city government that gave the mayor the last word in all decisions related to it. Seongnam City Hall has all records and minutes of meetings related to the project, which are at the heart of this investigations, so why did prosecutors not seize them immediately? Were they deliberately dragging their heels? And at whose orders?

      Prosecutors were also unable to seize Yoo's mobile phone after he threw it out of a window when prosecutors came, but it took police just a day once they looked at CCTV footage. Perhaps prosecutors only pretended to look for Yoo's phone but were more worried about the harmful evidence it contains. They conducted their first search more than two weeks after suspicions surrounding the land development project were revealed. In the interim key suspects switched mobile phones and some even fled to America. They had plenty of time to discuss a game plan and try to destroy evidence. Now, because progress is so slow, the time that Yoo can be legally held on suspicion alone is running out, and once he has been sprung other leads may well go missing.

      The size of the bribe listed on the arrest warrant for a major shareholder of the builder involved in the project surpasses W70 billion (US$1=W1,186). That is the biggest bribe ever in Korea's history. Yet the arrest warrant failed because prosecutors had omitted any reference to the dodgy project, so the court said there was insufficient cause. The public is demanding the truth, and 73 percent of Koreans now want an independent council to take over and for the National Assembly to convene a hearing. They are not as naive as the government may think.

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