In yet another criminal case related to the President Park Geun-hye scandal, Choi Soon-sil’s niece Jang Si-ho admitted to having coerced donations from Samsung Group at a court hearing Tuesday.
However, Choi, the president’s longtime friend and central figure in the corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment, denied the notion.
Former Vice Culture and Sports Minister Kim Chong, who is accused of colluding with Park and Choi in the alleged illicit fundraising for the Korea Winter Sports Elite Center, denied most of his charges, pinning the blame on President Park. He said Park had directly interacted with Samsung’s management in raising donations for the entity controlled by Choi and Jang.
Choi Soon-sil (right) and her niece Jang Si-ho (fifth from right) are seated with their attorneys at a courtroom of the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul on Tuesay (Yonhap)
The three -- who are all jailed -- are accused of colluding to force Samsung Electronics to contribute more than 1.6 billion won ($1.35 million) in donations to the winter sports center through its affiliate Cheil World Wide.
The trio’s suspected extortion -- using ties to the president or under her direct orders --- is one of the charges facing Park in her ongoing impeachment trial.
During the hearing at the Seoul Central District Court, the accused appeared in prison uniforms and sat side by side. They barely looked at each other, only talking to their lawyers and focusing on the court proceedings.
The appearance at the court of Jang, 37, and Choi, 60, came amid speculations that their family ties had deteriorated, as Jang had submitted key evidence against her aunt -- a tablet PC supposedly owned by Choi -- to the independent counsel investigating the scandal.
The two appeared to shift the liability to each other.
While Jang admitted to forcing Samsung Group to sponsor the center -- where she served as a secretary-general -- and embezzling some of the donations for her personal gain, Choi firmly denied any wrongdoing.
She claimed that she only intended to help Jang set up and run the organization for a good cause and said her niece was its de facto owner.
“She did not abuse her authority by collaborating with Jang. She only asked the Vice Culture and Sports Minister Kim to help run the center,” Choi’s lawyer said.
The prosecution sees Choi as a main suspect who made “important” decisions and gave specific instructions to Jang in the fundraising.
Jang’s admission came a day after the independent counsel sought an arrest warrant for Samsung Group’s de facto leader Lee Jae-yong on charges of offering bribes to Choi in return for the Park administration backing a merger of two Samsung affiliates.
The donation for the winter sports center is suspected of being part of the total bribe worth 43.3 billion won that Samsung Group gave to entities -- including the Mir and K-Sports foundations -- that are closely linked to Choi and the president.
Meanwhile, Vice Minister Kim Chong’s claims that implicate Park in the alleged extortion are in line with testimonies given by ex-Presidential Secretary An Chong-bum during the hearing at the Constitutional Court on Monday. An said Park gave detailed instructions in the process of forcing donations from local firms.
“According to An’s memo book, the donation was made through direct communication between Samsung’s management and the presidential office,” Kim’s lawyer said.
Choi is standing a separate trial for meddling in state affairs and colluding with the ex-presidential aide An to coerce big companies to make donations to the Mir and K-Sports foundations she controlled.
Choi has so far denied all the charges.
The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25 during which officials from Cheil World Wide will testify.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org