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(3rd LD) Chief auditor candidate gives up nomination after ruling party declares him 'unfit'

All Headlines 16:56 January 12, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with Cheong Wa Dae's response in paras 15-21)
By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak's pick for chief auditor gave up his nomination on Wednesday surrounded by controversy over his nine-digit salary that he received from a law firm and his role in a prosecution probe that had implicated the president.

Chung Tong-ki, a former senior prosecutor, stepped down 12 days after President Lee named him on Dec. 31 to head the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) in a Cabinet reshuffle. The resignation came ahead of his two-day confirmation hearing scheduled from Wednesday of next week.

Chung came under fire after he was found to have received a monthly salary of about 100 million won (US$89,500) while working for a Seoul-based law firm for seven months in 2008 after serving briefly on Lee's presidential transition team.

The large paycheck cast him as highly privileged, an image that does not mesh well with the public or, as critics argue, the image of the top auditor.

Chung's resignation was expected after the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) on Monday declared him "unfit" for the position and asked him to bow out, in an apparent bid to block any disruptions to the party's chances of winning upcoming elections.

The country will hold parliamentary by-elections in April and a general election and a presidential election next year.

The former nominee said he had hoped to clear all of the suspicions against him through the confirmation hearing.

"But I reached the conclusion that I could no longer stick to this position when I thought about the trouble being caused to the president and the expected confusion in state affairs because of me," Chung said in statement he read at a news conference.

While apologetic for the controversy, he was bitter in the statement, saying his private life was "maliciously distorted and trodden upon" by political interests.

"I have lived honestly, according to my own convictions, and was strict on myself, refraining from acts that could arouse suspicions or invite condemnation by others," he said.

Chung leveled criticisms at the GNP, saying demanding him to resign before a confirmation hearing "was nothing short of a death sentence without a trial."

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) had campaigned against Chung, highlighting the law firm salary it said was set excessively high because of his connections with the prosecution and close ties with the president. It also dug into his role as a prosecutor in investigating a financial scam that involved President Lee, who was later cleared of charges. In the case widely known as the "BBK scandal," named after a company co-established by Lee and a Korean-American businessman, the partner was sentenced to jail for embezzlement and stock price manipulation. Lee won the presidential election in 2007 by a landslide in spite of the scandal.

Some also suspected that Chung led the government's surveillance of civilians as Lee's chief civil affairs aide.

Chung's nomination and resignation left the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, and the ruling bloc in tatters after their split was played out in the public.

The president remained silent about Chung's decision.

Lee only expressed "regret" over it as he had lunch with senior presidential secretaries at a Cheong Wa Dae cafeteria shortly after Chung's televised announcement, according to Hong Sang-pyo, senior secretary for public affairs. Hong said the president made no specific remarks.

Hong sidestepped questions about whether the presidential chief of staff, Yim Tae-hee, or other aides will be held responsible for the political setback.

Many agree that Lee's leadership suffered a blow once again from Chung's resignation. Chung has become the president's ninth nominee for a high-level government post to drop out before or after parliamentary confirmation hearings for reasons varying from accusations of real estate speculation to controversial comments.

Chung's case is more embarrassing to Cheong Wa Dae as the ruling party openly tackled his nomination.

The incident, political analysts say, exposed the serious lack of communication and workable relationships between the sides.

Local media are talking about the possibility of an early lame duck, which is something of a taboo topic inside the Lee administration, pointing out that Cheong Wa Dae also faces a daunting task of mending and managing ties with the GNP during the remainder of Lee's tenure that ends in early 2013.

Critics have said the president's repeated appointments of his close confidants to key ministerial posts run against a "fair society" drive that he launched as he passed the halfway point of his term last summer.

The GNP gave high marks to Chung for his decision and the DP welcomed it as a natural course of events.

"We highly rate the nominee's decision," Ahn Hyoung-hwan, spokesman of the GNP, said in a statement. "He may have much left to say, but he made a labored decision for the president and the government."

Jeon Hyun-heui, spokeswoman of the DP, called it a "natural result" of "the people's judgement on the president's 'revolving-door' personnel management."

She demanded a public apology from the president and punishment of people responsible for the nomination debacle.

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