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(4th LD) Investigators fail to search presidential office over scandal

All Headlines 17:24 February 03, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS acting president aide's response in paras 7-8, presidential office's response in paras 14-17)

SEOUL, Feb. 3 (Yonhap) -- Special investigators' attempt to raid the presidential office as part of an influence-peddling probe ended in failure Friday as the office denied them entry, citing security concerns.

The probe team said it would request the acting president to use his authority to allow the search of Cheong Wa Dae.

Some 20 investigators from Independent Counsel Park Young-soo's team visited the presidential compound in the morning to secure more data ahead of a face-to-face interrogation of President Park Geun-hye, which is likely to take place later this month.

But security officials blocked their entry and the presidential office submitted a statement of disapproval in the afternoon. The investigators left the scene after a five-hour standoff.

"The probe team is planning to send an official letter to Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn -- who seems to hold greater authority than the presidential chief of staff and the chief presidential security officer who signed the statement -- explaining the inappropriateness of the disapproval and seek cooperation," the independent counsel's spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said during a regular press briefing.

"We express regret over the fact that Cheong Wa Dae turned down (the raid), even when we have minimized the location and subject of the execution of the warrant," he said.

But an aide to Hwang indicated he would be reluctant to step into the fray.

Asked to comment on the probe team's plan to request Hwang's cooperation, he said in a terse statement, "We understand that the presidential chief of staff and the (presidential) security office could not respond to the independent counsel's raid in line with related laws."

It was the team's first attempt to raid the presidential premises since it launched the investigation in December.

This file photo, taken from the government complex in Seoul on Nov. 29, 2016, shows a view of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap)

State prosecutors, who handed over the case to the independent counsel last year, attempted a raid in October but were blocked by the presidential office. The office, instead, voluntarily turned over some documents requested by the prosecutors.

Under the country's law, military facilities and other areas that handle confidential information cannot be searched without approval from the person in charge of the location. Yet, the law also prohibits the person from refusing to grant such consent unless it infringes upon key national interests.

"Since the launch of the investigation, we have reviewed relevant laws, but we have come to the conclusion that there is actually no way to compel the search and seizure if the presidential office does not approve," Lee, the spokesman said.

He added the team will review whether the presidential office's rejection constitutes an obstruction of justice, adding that Cheong Wa Dae failed to elaborate how the raid could harm the national interest.

Cheong Wa Dae for its part expressed strong regret over the raid under a search warrant that listed the president as a suspect.

"It is deeply regrettable that (the investigators) attempted to execute a search warrant that named the president as a suspect even before a ruling from the impeachment trial is rendered, which runs counter to the Constitution," Jung Youn-kuk said in a text message sent to reporters.

Jung stressed the constitutional clause that stipulates the president is immune from prosecution except in cases of insurrection or treason.

"The presidential immunity is the minimal constitutional safeguard to enable a president to maintain his or her status and represent the country while in office," he argued, denouncing what he calls a "forcible" investigation.

The warrant issued by the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday is valid until Dec. 28. Investigators usually ask for a search and seizure warrant that is valid for about a week, but the probe team said it sought sufficient time to accommodate the current wrangling going on between the two sides.

The presidential office and the probe team are in talks over when and how to carry out the questioning of Park, who is now awaiting the Constitutional Court's decision on her impeachment motion. She has been accused of letting her close friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs and amass personal profits using her ties to the president. Both Park and Choi have been flatly denying the allegations.

On the same day, the investigation team raided the offices of the Fair Trade Commission in the central city of Sejong and the Financial Supervisory Commission in Seoul over the controversial merger of Samsung Group's two affiliates in 2015 and other corruption allegations involving Choi.

The country's largest conglomerate is suspected of giving bribes to Choi in return for the state-run pension fund's backing of the merger between Samsung C&T Corp. and Cheil Industries Inc.

Officials are shown at the Financial Supervisory Commission in Seoul on Feb. 3, 2017, as investigators raided the offices over the latest influence-peddling scandal centered on President Park Geun-hye and her friend. (Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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