Prosecutors investigating the irregularities at Busan Savings Bank abruptly suspended their probe Friday. They sent testifiers home and walked out of their offices. They did not come to work on Saturday or Sunday either.
It was a protest against a decision by lawmakers to abolish the prosecution’s most powerful investigation unit -- the Central Investigation Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
It was not just the CID prosecutors investigating the savings bank scandal who were shocked and infuriated. The entire prosecution sizzled with anger. Prosecutor General Kim Joon-gyu is to meet with senior prosecutors today to discuss how they will respond to the parliamentary assault on their organization.
The lawmakers who rattled the prosecution are members of the prosecution reform subcommittee of the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Reform. They have grappled with their task since February last year. In March this year, they concluded that the CID should to be dismantled because its immense investigative power has often been politically abused.
On Friday, the subcommittee agreed to revise the Public Prosecutors’ Office Act to set its conclusion in stone. Since the agreement was reached between lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties, there is little possibility of it being overturned in the legislative process.
The backlash from the prosecutors is understandable, given the central role the CID has thus far played in investigating high-profile corruption cases involving presidential aides and relatives, top government officials, powerful politicians and business big shots.
What made the prosecutors particularly furious was the timing of the lawmakers’ move. It came right after investigators identified the first two politicians suspected of having taken bribes from the insolvent savings banks. They were Rep. Gong Sung-jin of the ruling Grand National Party and Im Jong-seok, a former lawmaker of the Uri Party, the governing party of the Roh Moo-hyun government.
Prosecutors said Shin Sam-gil, honorary chairman of Samhwa Mutual Savings Bank who was indicted in April on charges of extending some 70 billion won worth of illegal loans, has testified to giving 3 to 5 million won a month to each of the two politicians starting in 2005.
Against this backdrop, prosecutors denounced the lawmakers’ move as a thinly veiled attempt to interrupt their probe as the cozy relationship between politicians and the insolvent savings banks was beginning to come to light.
They said media reports of the lawmaker’s plan would deal a blow to their investigation, since suspects involved in the scandal might choose to keep their mouths shut thinking the investigation would soon come to an end with the dissolution of the CID.
Prosecutors also argued that the parliamentary intervention in the prosecution’s affairs was ultimately intended to set up a protective wall that would make prosecution of lawmakers involved in corruption more difficult.
Without doubt, prosecutors have a valid case. But this does not justify their suspension of investigation into Busan Savings Bank or defiance of the parliamentary decision to disband the CID. They simply have no right to challenge the National Assembly’s legislative authority.
Prosecutors need to reflect on what motivated lawmakers to pursue prosecution reform in the first place. It was their failure to maintain political neutrality and independence and prevent the abuse of their prosecutorial power. Had they used their discretionary power of indictment more independently and fairly, they would have been spared the humiliation of being forced to dissolve the CID, one of their sources of pride.
In this respect, what prosecutors ought to do now is not suspending but stepping up investigation into politicians suspected of being involved in the savings bank scandal. They should investigate suspects thoroughly without any political considerations.
Up to now, their probe has been decisive. The long list of arrested officials demonstrates their determination to get to the bottom of the scandal. They need to maintain the current resolve throughout the investigation to regain the public’s confidence.