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Prosecutors question key aide to Seoul school chief

(Yonhap) -- Prosecutors have summoned a key aide to embattled Seoul education chief Kwak No-hyun as they investigate an alleged bribery scandal involving the payoff of a rival candidate, official sources said Saturday.

   Sources at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office said investigators are questioning Kim Seong-oh, who represented Kwak in talks aimed at consolidating a single liberal candidate ahead of last year's election to pick the superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

   Investigators said the focus of the probe will be to determine the details of a secret agreement that caused Kwak's main rival, Park Myoung-gee, to quit his race and support one candidate from the liberal camp just weeks before the June 4 elections.

   They will also ask the representative when the school chief was informed of the deal.

   In the past, Kim repeatedly said Park's request for money was rejected out of hand and claimed that the behind-the-scenes deal was brokered by other aides without the knowledge or consent of senior advisors or Kwak himself.

   Park, a professor at the Seoul National University of Education, has since been arrested for taking 200 million won (US$188,300) from Kwak between the months of February and April, with the incumbent superintendent admitting to giving the money, although he has denied it was a bribe or a payoff for Park's withdrawal from the race in 2010.

   Related to the secret deal, another Kwak aide identified only by his family name of Lee told Yonhap News Agency on Friday that an actual pledge was made to help Park ahead of him giving up his candidacy, but stressed the superintendent was not informed of this until after the race.

   "No report was made to Kwak and he was only aware of the promise made after October when Park started to press the issue," Lee said.

   Prosecutors have since summoned Lee, although he has not shown up, and are currently investigating an aide to Park, who engaged in the negotiations that resulted in Kwak being the only liberal candidate vying for the school superintendent's post, compared with several candidates representing conservative interests.

   Investigators, meanwhile, plan to wrap up their probe on people related to Kwak, including his wife, who may be connected to the possible bribery scandal, over the weekend, so they can summon the superintendent for questioning on Monday.

   If formal charges are made, a trial will be held with the outcome to determine if a by-election for a new school chief must be held. If found guilty, Kwak could face jail time and be subject to a fine as well as being forced to pay back the 3.5 billion won he received from the government for his successful election campaign.

   A guilty ruling could, in addition, jeopardize Kwak's plan to offer free lunches to school children that led to a referendum last month. The referendum pushed forward by former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon failed because of a low turnout at the polls. Oh subsequently resigned from his post, causing political parties to scramble to pick candidates for the Oct. 26 by-elections.

   Kwak, meanwhile, has made clear that he did not intend to resign over the matter despite receiving a considerable amount of public flak.