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[Editorial] Insufficient probe

Lobbyists, politicians effectively exonerated in Optimus fund scam

The prosecution investigating the Optimus fund scam dismissed suspicions that the hedge fund’s advisers had lobbied politicians and officials working for finance-related authorities.

It dropped charges against three former advisers: Yang Ho, a former chairman of Nara Bank; Lee Hun-jai, a former finance minister; and Kim Jin-hoon, a former chief of the Military Mutual Aid Association. It did not book another ex-adviser, former Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook.

Nearly 20 prosecutors investigated the investment fund fraud for 14 months, only to wrap up the probe and effectively exonerate its targets.

The financial scam cost about 1,000 investors more than 500 billion won ($436 million). Optimus Asset Management raised 1.35 trillion won by promising to invest in safe assets such as the accounts receivable of public organizations. Instead, it invested in risky real estate development projects unrelated to state-run corporations and also used part of the money to acquire financially distressed companies.

The whole debacle could have been avoided with due oversight. Complaints were filed, but the Financial Supervisory Service did not handle them properly. Rumors in the financial circle suggested that someone was protecting Optimus.

Furthermore, it was revealed that the prosecution secured a document and testimonies that substantiated the lobbying allegations yet chose to ignore this evidence. That revelation, among others, fanned speculation about shady ties between Optimus and those in power.

In the early days of the investigation, the prosecution moved quickly. On June 22 last year, financial institutions that had sold the funds to investors filed an accusation against Optimus, saying it had failed to repay clients who had requested redemption. Two days later, the prosecution raided Optimus. A month after the accusation was lodged, the prosecution indicted CEO Kim Jae-hyun and three other executives.

On Oct. 7 last year, a document titled “Curing Defects of the Fund,” which contained the names of Optimus’ advisers and their contacts, was revealed to the public through news reports. This amplified suspicion that Optimus had paid the advisers to lobby politicians and government officials to resolve issues arising from faulty investments. But the investigation seemed to lose steam once the case came under the control of Seoul Central District Chief Prosecutor Lee Sung-yoon, widely regarded as obedient to President Moon.

Finally, all those accused of lobbying, as well as the ruling party politicians they had contacted and a senior Cheong Wa Dae official, were cleared of suspicion.

According to the document, former Prosecutor General Chae once met with Gov. Lee Jae-myung of Gyeonggi Province to ask a favor concerning the license of a provincial logistics complex into which part of the Optimus funds flowed. But the prosecution disregarded this evidence and did not book Chae or Gov. Lee.

An aide to Lee Nak-yon, former chair of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, was accused of receiving dubious financial support for Lee’s campaign office from Optimus for months. The prosecution saw the allegation as convincing but dismissed any suspicions against Lee, citing insufficient evidence. It did not even question Lee.

Kim Jin-kook, Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs, was suspected of introducing a senior judge to a lobbyist for Optimus, but the prosecution did not pursue the matter, even declining to summon him for questioning.

The prosecution looked away from the two Lees, who are leading the party’s presidential candidacy race.

Few would believe that those suspicions were thoroughly investigated, given that such a massive financial scam would be unimaginable without external protection.

The prosecution said it would continue to investigate a former Cheong Wa Dae official who owned nearly 10 percent of stocks in Optimus Asset Management. Further investigation should focus on whether she intervened in the financial authorities’ supervision of the fund sale and management. The prosecution should investigate thoroughly if it is aware of people watching the case.

Most key posts in the prosecution and even in the judicial branch are filled with pro-Moon prosecutors and judges. Suspicions dismissed on unconvincing grounds may be sealed for now, but they will come to light someday.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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