State Prosecutors to Take Over Crony Scandal Probe

Andrew Kim, March 9, 2017, 9:14 a.m.

State prosecutors are reassembling a special team to probe the massive corruption scandal that has brought down President Park Geun-hye after independent counsel Park Young-soo officially ended his mandate on Tuesday.

Prosecutors will now investigate the president on corruption charges as well as looking into suspicions that former presidential secretary Woo Byung-woo, who has miraculously escaped close scrutiny so far, led the cover-up.

Several prosecutors who handled the initial investigation before the independent counsel was empowered by the National Assembly are expected to join the new team.

The initial investigation late last year led to the indictments of President Park’s longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil and presidential aides An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong, and the naming of Park herself as an accomplice to their crimes.

The independent counsel later arrested de facto Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong on charges of bribing Choi and Park, which will alter the direction of the fresh investigation.

Woo, the former presidential secretary for civil affairs, has presented both probes with a headache.

The independent counsel sought an arrest warrant for Woo, a former prosecutor, on charges of undue influence in the appointments of government officials, abuse of power and dereliction of duty by blocking an audit of his office.

But a court rejected the arrest warrant citing insufficient evidence linking Woo to Choi, whom he continues to claim he never met. The independent counsel was pressed for time and unable to put a solid case together in the final few days of his mandate. Prosecutors can now probe Woo without an urgent timeframe, but his chummy connections with the prosecutors' office remain a problem.

Woo allegedly acted as a revolving door in getting former prosecutors into plum positions under Park, who liked to surround herself with ostensible law-and-order figures.

The first prosecution team that investigated Woo last year drew criticism for failing to check his mobile phone records or search his office and home for three months.

Prosecutors privately express concerns that officials who are to lead the fresh probe are still too close to Woo to be able to do their job properly.

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