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(4th LD) Ex-President Lee grilled over corruption allegations

All Headlines 22:31 March 14, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES paras 2, 3, 7, minor edits throughout)

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- Former President Lee Myung-bak was grilled by prosecutors on Wednesday over a string of corruption allegations including bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.

During the interrogation, Lee denied being the secret owner of his brother's auto parts firm, which is at the center of the scandal, as well as his involvement in alleged slush funds formed through the company, prosecutors said. He also rebutted allegations that state agencies, including the presidential office, helped a DAS lawsuit and moved state documents to DAS' warehouse.

"He is said to be adhering to his initial claim that he has nothing to do with the alleged ownership of DAS and the land lot in Dogok," a prosecution official told a press briefing in the afternoon. "Lee is also denying pocketing slush funds and leaking state documents, saying he doesn't know anything (about those matters). And he's saying even if such things had happened, they would have been done by working level employees."

The former president, who was in office from 2008-2013, is suspected of being the real owner of DAS, which on paper belongs to his elder brother, Lee Sang-eun. Prosecutors suspect 30 billion won (US$28.2 million) of illicit funds were created through the company and related businesses.

Lee is believed to have owned a large plot of land in southern Seoul and used the proceeds from its sale in 1995 to acquire stakes in the company.

Lee is also accused of taking a total of 11 billion won in bribes from the state spy agency, as well as Samsung and others, including from a former chief of a major banking group, around the time of his election win and in the early years of his term in office.

During the interrogation, the prosecutors also asked Lee whether his son-in-law, an executive at Samsung Electronics Co., delivered bribes to Lee's wife, Kim Yoon-ok, but Lee reportedly denied the involvement of the former first lady.

The 77-year-old appeared at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office at 9:30 a.m. Before a swarm of media crews, he apologized to the public and expressed regret over the probe.

"I stand here today feeling wretched," Lee said. "I am deeply sorry for causing concern to the public at this time when our economy is struggling and the security environment around the Korean Peninsula is very grave."

He said he has many things to say as a former president but said he's determined to "save his breath."

"I just wish that this would be the last of its kind in history," he said.

Among other suspicions is Samsung's alleged 6 billion-won payment of legal fees owed by DAS to a U.S. law firm from November 2007 to March 2009, in a suit that sought to recoup DAS' 14 billion-won investment in a U.S. company.

Prosecutors believe the payment by Samsung is an indication that Lee is the real owner of DAS, as the tech giant had no reason to do so unless it was seeking some influence for its business interest.

Denying all accusations, Lee has denounced the investigation as political retaliation by the current administration of liberal President Moon Jae-in.

It is widely expected that prosecutors will seek an arrest warrant for Lee when they finish questioning him. Some of his key aides, including a wealth manager, have been arrested.

The prosecution office and police beefed up security around the perimeter to prevent any possible clash. The prosecution temporarily shut down most of its entrances and only allowed entry for media personnel whose IDs had been cleared in advance.

Police dispatched 13 squads of over 1,000 officers to provide security near the prosecution office in Seocho, southern Seoul, and around Lee's residence, about 4.7 kilometers from the prosecution building.

Lee, former chief executive of Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co., entered politics in 1992 as a lawmaker and served as Seoul mayor from 2002 to 2006.

He is the fifth former South Korean president to face a prosecution investigation. His successor Park Geun-hye was ousted from office last year and charged over a massive influence-peddling scandal.

Former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo stood trial in the mid-1990s for corruption and mutiny charges for staging a 1979 military coup before they were pardoned in 1997 by then-President Kim Young-sam.

Late President Roh Moo-hyun was subpoenaed in 2009 over a corruption scandal involving his family. The probe was ended after he committed suicide in May of that year.

Former President Lee Myung-bak reads out a statement before entering the prosecution office building on March 14, 2018, to be questioned over a string of corruption allegations. (Yonhap)

elly@yna.co.kr
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