Top prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl leaves the prosecutors' office in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is to be removed from duty for two months following a vote by a Justice Ministry disciplinary committee that met amid an unprecedented conflict between the heads of the prosecution and the ministry.
The disciplinary panel voted to suspend Yoon from his post early Wednesday morning, deeming him responsible for four of the six allegations brought against him.
There are five possible levels of punishment, with dismissal the heaviest and a reprimand the lightest.
The chief prosecutor has denied all allegations from the outset. The penalty will officially take effect only upon an official recommendation from Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, then an executive order from President Moon Jae-in.
Yoon was found responsible for surveillance of the judiciary, interference in a controversial case involving a TV journalist and failure to maintain political neutrality, said Chung Han-joong, who headed the committee in place of Choo.
The committee also found Yoon responsible for holding an improper meeting with a media company owner and interfering in another investigation, but Chung said the panel decided not to impose disciplinary actions for those infractions.
Chung, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School and a director of the Korea Government Legal Service under the Justice Ministry, was picked by Choo to head the committee on her behalf. As the petitioner, Choo was not allowed to attend.
“We have reached the conclusion based on the evidence presented before us,” Chung told reporters Wednesday after the hearing at the Gwacheon Government Complex. “I ask for your understanding even if the ruling is not so satisfactory.”
It was originally speculated within the legal sphere that the committee would eventually dismiss Yoon from his post with or without additional penalties, but some have also speculated that the committee might listen to public opinion and suspend Yoon from his position for just a few months.
Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu leaves the ministry building after attending the disciplinary panel meeting in Gwacheon on Wednesday morning. (Yonhap)
The chief prosecutor immediately pledged to take legal action to fight the ruling, calling the suspension “illegal and unfair.”
He refused to attend the two committee hearings to protest what he has called procedural flaws during the process of putting together the committee and the ministry’s investigation into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
“The committee’s decision is illegal and unfair as it has put forward groundless reasons and unlawful procedures to eject the chief prosecutor who is serving its term,” Yoon said in a statement four hours after the ruling was announced.
“The prosecution’s political neutrality, independence and legal righteousness have been deeply damaged. The mistake will be corrected by the Constitution and procedures defined by law.”
Throughout the hearing Tuesday, Yoon’s defense filed motions to disqualify two of the four committee members because of questions about their impartiality, but both motions were turned down.
The committee originally consisted of seven members, but three dropped out. Yoon’s defense argued that a committee with only four members was against the law and asked for the remaining seats to be filled, but that request was also denied.
The chief prosecutor’s defense said the committee could have come to its conclusions even before hearing all the testimony, as it imposed unreasonable time constraints on the defense and did not disclose some critical information.
The committee asked Yoon’s defense to prepare a final statement within an hour in a bid to wrap up the hearing. The attorneys declined to work within the time frame, asking for more time to prepare a statement.
But the committee denied the request and closed the hearing at 7:50 p.m. Tuesday, heading to final discussions for a decision.
“We have a feeling that the Justice Ministry could have already set its own conclusions before concluding the hearing,” said Lee Wan-kyu, one of the legal representatives for the prosecutor general.
“The disciplinary procedure itself is unlawful and unfair, so we cannot accept the conclusion, and we will respond in accordance to this line of facts.”
Yoon and his defense are expected to protest the decision with an administrative lawsuit and a request to suspend the order once it is signed and put into effect by Moon.
The Blue House declined to immediately comment on the outcome of the disciplinary committee hearing, referring official government response to the Justice Ministry.
Choo briefed Moon on the committee’s decision and made a request for his executive order late Wednesday afternoon.
It was originally expected that the justice minister would make a documented recommendation within the next day or two and the Blue House to spend another day or two to officiate the punishment.
But Choo’s physical visit to the Blue House could have that process shortened and processed much faster. Moon did not officiate an executive order on the matter as of press time.
If Moon signs off on the punishment, Yoon would be suspended from his post for the second time in less than a month, which could delay the prosecution’s investigations into key scandals involving incumbent government and ruling party officials.
Yoon was originally suspended from his post Nov. 24. But after the Seoul Administrative Court granted an injunction lifting the suspension, Yoon returned to work, prompting Choo to take the case to a higher court for review.
People Power Party floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young speaks during a press conference Wednesday held to criticize the government`s move in penalizing Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeul. (Yonhap)
The committee’s decision was met with mixed responses from the political sphere, with the ruling Democratic Party calling it evidence of the need for prosecutorial reform.
“The fact that the incumbent prosecutor general received a heavy penalty means much challenge remains within the prosecution,” Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon said in a party meeting Wednesday. “The decision makes it clearer why we must pursue prosecutorial reform.”
The main opposition People Power Party’s interim leader Kim Chong-in criticized the committee ruling as “unreasonable” and the Moon government’s attitude as “against common sense.”
“With this unprecedented penalization on the prosecutor general, the Moon Jae-in administration is raging with madness,” said People Power Party Floor Leader Rep. Joo Ho-young in a press conference Wednesday.
“This administration is executing its plan to disarm the prosecution and privately own the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.”
The new agency to be tasked with investigating corruption among senior government officials is expected to launch soon, following the recent parliamentary passage of a revision bill.
The launch of the CIO has been a major policy initiative of the Moon administration and a key part of his drive to reform the prosecution, which has frequently been accused of wielding too much power and authority.
The ruling party hinted that Yoon could be one of the very first to be investigated under the scope of the CIO, even though the prosecution is already looking into some of the allegations against him.
“If the prosecution cannot investigate cases related to Prosecutor General Yoon or cases involving other prosecutors, they will be put under check by special probes or from the corruption investigation office,” said Rep. Kim Jong-min of the Democratic Party during a party meeting Wednesday.
By Ko Jun-tae (email@example.com