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(4th LD) Confidante Choi denies economic ties to Park

All News 22:26 January 16, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES with former presidential aide's remarks, details in paras 2-3, 16, 17-19)
By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's friend who is at the center of a national corruption scandal on Monday denied being economically tied to the president as special prosecutors moved to prove suspicions that the two took bribes from Samsung.

Choi Soon-sil made the remark at the Constitutional Court where she was summoned to testify at the fifth hearing of Park's impeachment trial. On the same day, special prosecutors investigating the scandal requested an arrest warrant for Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong on charges of giving up to 43 billion won (US$36.3 million) to Choi in return for the government's backing of a controversial merger in 2015.

Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of a widening corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, arrives at the Constitutional Court in Seoul on Jan. 16, 2017. (Yonhap)

The prosecutors' move has raised the prospects of Park being charged with bribe-taking through her friend. It could also affect the court's review of Park's impeachment motion, which passed through parliament last month.

While parliament impeached her for allegedly colluding with Choi, Park has maintained her innocence and refused to attend her trial.

During questioning, Choi denied that she and the president are an "economic unit" or that they shared "economic interests."

Asked whether she has ever repaid Park's personal debts or jointly conducted business projects, she added, "I have never done so."

Choi vehemently denied any wrongdoing in her interactions with the president, calling the accusations against her "unfair."

"I have never gained any benefits or privileges. I think it is a jump of logic," she said defiantly.

The confidante has been jailed since late last year on charges of abusing her personal ties to the president to extort money from conglomerates, influence appointments of government personnel, and secure college admission and funding for her daughter.

Members of a parliamentary impeachment panel grilled Choi over allegations she influenced government-sponsored culture and sports projects to benefit her daughter who is a former member of the national equestrian team.

Choi shot back at the panel members, demanding they provide evidence of her alleged wrongdoing. She also complained of the prosecution's "coercive" investigation tactics and insisted she never received "a penny" in benefits.

At times, she raised her voice and refused to answer what she called "loaded questions."

Choi also defended the president, saying Park is a person of integrity who did not take an interest in money.

"The president had a clear philosophy on government administration," she claimed. Reports that she ordered the president to execute certain policies are a "ridiculous exaggeration," she added.

Choi acknowledged making visits to the presidential office but claimed she did not remember how often. She also said she helped Park with "personal matters" but refused to elaborate. She still admitted to receiving drafts of Park's speeches and making changes to give them more emotion.

Toward the end of her 6-hour hearing, she said she had no knowledge of the request for an arrest warrant against Lee.

Meanwhile, An Chong-bum, a former Park aide, indicated the president was aware of the merger's importance to Lee's succession.

Testifying after Choi, he acknowledged that Park's reference material ahead of her July 2015 meeting with Lee included a comment about her wish to see the succession issue resolved during her term.

He also said she ordered conglomerates to provide a specific amount of funds to two culture and sports foundations controlled by Choi.

The Constitutional Court, a special prosecutors' team and a local court have all accelerated their proceedings to draw a swift resolution to the case as millions of people have staged candlelight vigils for the past 12 Saturdays to demand Park's resignation and punishment for others involved in the scandal.

The top court has until early June to decide whether to uphold or reject the impeachment motion.

Choi Soon-sil is seated inside the Constitutional Court in Seoul ahead of the fifth hearing of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment trial on Jan. 16, 2017. (Yonhap)


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