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(4th LD) Lawmakers grill woman at heart of scandal at detention center

All Headlines 20:20 December 26, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 8-10, 18; CHANGES photo)
By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korean lawmakers on Monday questioned the friend of President Park Geun-hye, who is at the center of a scandal that led to the president's impeachment, at a detention center as she repeatedly rejected to appear at a parliamentary hearing.

Members of a special parliamentary committee visited the detention center on the outskirts of Seoul and quizzed Park's confidante Choi Soon-sil. The lawmakers originally planned to air the questioning, but after hours of quarreling with the correctional office, instead carried out the interrogation in private.

Other members of the committee visited former presidential aides An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong at another detention center as the two had also refused to attend a hearing at the National Assembly.

Choi and An are suspected of forcing conglomerates to donate 77.4 billion won (US$64.4 million) to the Mir and K-Sports Foundations, which she virtually controlled. Jeong is accused of leaking government secrets to Choi.

The three have been claiming that their testimonies could affect an on-going investigation by independent prosecutors. There are no legal grounds to force witnesses to attend the parliamentary hearing.

During the two and a half-hour-long questioning, Choi denied most of the allegations raised against her, according to the lawmakers.

"She said she is sorry for causing confusion in the country but declined to specifically comment on what she did wrong," said Rep. Kim Han-jung of the main opposition Democratic Party, who was at the questioning.

"She appeared in a light green prison uniform with a yellow identification tag numbered 628," Kim said. "She was looking haggard but did not seem to have major health problems."

Choi said she cannot remember details whenever asked about her corruption allegations, lawmakers said.

Jeong admitted to most of the allegations raised, but An claimed that he only followed directions given from the president, according to the other group of lawmakers.

The committee earlier said it decided to file complaints against the three defendants on charges of contempt of the National Assembly.

Choi's lawyer Lee Kyung-jae said in a press release that such an attempt to interrogate Choi in the detention facility goes against the law and the Constitution.

"The committee does not have the authority to question a witness who did not attend the hearing," he said. "If they wanted to question the defendant, they should have sent a request seeking her appearance at least seven days in advance, in accordance with the law."

A justice ministry official, who asked not to be named, meanwhile said an interrogation at a detention center is possible.

The panel has held five sessions of inquiry, summoning presidential staff members, business tycoons and other figures involved in the influence-peddling scandal.

During an interrogation by special prosecutors Sunday, Choi denied new allegations that she stashed around 10 trillion won abroad. She told investigators that she would donate all the money to the state, if there were any such money, according to the independent counsel team.

Local media reported Choi may have hidden 800 billion won in Germany and more in other European countries via her ghost companies.

Choi denied such allegations on Monday, adding she does not have a penny in Germany, according to Rep. An Min-suk of the main opposition party, also among the lawmakers at the questioning.

The independent counsel on the scandal said the team has hired a former state tax agency official to trace Choi's assets at home and abroad.

Sources said that the team will also track down dubious assets Choi's family has amassed over the past 40 years.

Choi is the fifth daughter of Park's late mentor Choi Tae-min. The late Choi, who used to lead a religious cult, had reportedly advised Park since her mother, Yook Young-soo, was assassinated by a North Korea sympathizer in 1974.

The seats for three key witnesses are vacant at a parliamentary hearing at the Seoul corrections headquarters in Uiwang, south of Seoul, on Dec. 26, 2016. Choi Soon-sil, a presidential confidante at the heart of the influence-peddling and extortion scandal, refused to show up for the hearing, as did two presidential aides implicated in the case. It was the first hearing to be held at a prison facility in 19 years. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)


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