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Plot thickens in illegal surveillance case

More allegations surfaced over the weekend further suggesting the Presidential Office’s involvement in an illegal surveillance scandal, as the prosecution banned a former presidential aide from traveling aboard, reopening its probe into the 2010 case.

It was claimed Saturday that Yim Tae-hee, chief of staff to President Lee Myung-bak, had given money to family members of two former officials indicted in the scandal.

According to multiple news reports, Yim delivered an unknown amount of cash to the families of Jin Gyoeng-rak and Lee In-kyu during Chuseok in 2010.

The two are among the several officials at the Prime Minister’s Office who were indicted and later sentenced to prison for the illegal surveillance of a businessman critical of the president.

Yim claimed that he had given their families the money purely out of compassion on the Korean thanksgiving holiday, after learning that they were having a hard time after the imprisonment. He noted that he had worked with both officials when he served as the Minister of Employment and Labor.

Last week, prosecutors decided to reopen the case, after Jang Jin-su, one of the officials indicted in the scandal, claimed that he acted under direct orders from the Presidential Office. The investigators plan to summon Jang on Tuesday.

A local court on Saturday imposed an overseas travel ban on Lee Young-ho, President Lee’s former secretary on labor affairs, who according to Jang’s claims directed the illegal operation and its cover-up.

In their initial probe, the prosecutors had cleared him of any involvement.

Jang claims that Lee Young-ho offered him 20 million won ($17,800) last year in an apparent move to cover up Cheong Wa Dae’s involvement.

He disclosed a recording of a purported phone conversation between him and Choi Jong-seok, a former labor affairs official at the presidential office.

In the dialogue, Choi offers Jang cash or life-long support in return for keeping mum, reassuring him that the presidential office had an understanding with prosecutors.

On Sunday, Democratic Unified Party Rep. Lee Seok-hyun called for transparency from the president, and said that the investigation by the prosecution is like a “thief trying to catch a thief.”

“President Lee Myung-bak needs to disclose whether or not he was briefed on the illegal surveillance of a civilian by Lee’s senior secretary for civil affairs Kwon Jae-jin and former secretary on labor affairs Lee Young-ho,” said the opposition party representative.

“There is an investigation report on Kim Jong-ik former head of KB Hanmaum dated Sept. 27, 2008 and Aug. 1 inside the civil affairs’, Prime Minister’s and Cheong Wa Dae’s briefing portfolios.”

In what Lee claims as support he disclosed a Supreme Prosecutors’ analysis report on computer hard drives of the Prime Minister’s Office’s staff.

The scandal first erupted in 2010 after Kim claimed that the Prime Minister’s Office illegally monitored him.

Kim posted a 25-minute video in June 2008 on his blog criticizing President Lee Myung-bak and his policies.

Opposition parties and Lee’s political foes suspected that spying on civilians was carried out under the direction of the Presidential Office to stymie any attempts to impede Lee’s presidency.

After their 2010 investigation into the scandal, prosecutors indicted Lee In-kyu and three members of his staff, all of whom later received prison terms for illegal surveillance.

Three others, including Jang, were convicted of destroying evidence and also received jail terms. They have appealed and are now awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court.

Opposition politicians equated the case to the Watergate scandal in the 1970s that ousted U.S. President Richard Nixon, saying the party will push for a probe by an independent counsel if the prosecution does not move.

By Robert Lee (