A formal arrest warrant has been issued Thursday for Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye’s longtime confidante, accused of collaborating with a presidential aide to abuse power and attempting to commit fraud.
After checking the charges raised against Choi, the court said that it is "necessary" to arrest her.
Choi, a 60-year-old civilian who has no background in policy and is a daughter of Park’s late mentor Choi Tae-min, allegedly traded barbs with the prosecution over whether Choi can be seen as an accessary to abuse of power during the warrant application hearing.
Choi has denied most of her charges. She maintains that she does not even know the ex-presidential aide of policy coordination An Chong-bum.
Choi left the Seoul Central District Court after attending nearly two-hour hearing. Her lawyer told reporters that Choi candidly made statements in the courtroom and she would accept the court's decision.
One of the charges the prosecution brought against Choi is that she collaborated with a former presidential aide to force local conglomerates to contribute money worth 80 billion won ($70 million) to the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation. She also allegedly pulled strings for her company the Blue-K to strike a contract with the state-run Grand Korea Leisure.
The prosecution views An, who resigned from his post last weekend and was put under emergency detention on Wednesday night, as a main suspect. Choi was charged as an accomplice as she holds no public office.
Another charge against Choi is attempted fraud, which critics in the legal circle say contradict her alleged charges of embezzlement. The prosecution obtained evidence that she attempted to funnel 700 million won from the K-Sports Foundation into her company the Blue-K.
The charge of fraud, which means Choi stole asset from others, can be applied when the K-Sports Foundation and Mir Foundation are seen as not belonging to Choi. But a series of allegations suggest that Choi is a de-facto owner of the foundations.
Criticism surfaced over the charges the prosecution brought against Choi as critics argue that the charges only carry light punishment and do not accurately reflect what she did.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyun, blasted the prosecution for charging her with abuse of power and attempted fraud carrying lower punishment. It said that she should be charged with bribery.
Choi can face up to life sentence for bribery. But abuse of authority carries less than 5 years in prison and 10 million won for penalty.
As the court granted the prosecution a warrant, it has up to 20 days to investigate the suspect and decide whether or not to indict her.
The prosecution continued to grill those involved in the influence-peddling scandal Thursday.
Prosecutors questioned an executive director, surnamed Kim, from Samsung Group as a witness as part of the probe into allegations that Choi Soon-sil forced local companies to pay money into the embattled foundations.
Samsung is the third conglomerate to be investigated over the suspicions after Lotte and SK, among 53 companies from 19 business groups. Samsung‘s affiliates allegedly donated some 20 billion won to the foundations.
Samsung paid 2.8 million euro into Widec Sports, founded by Choi, to help her and her daughter Chung Yoo-ra to buy a horse. Chung, a 19-year-old horseback rider, is suspected of entering Ewha Womans University on the back of her mother’s influence.
The prosecution are looking into financial transactions at Samsung’s affiliates.
Investigators are questioning the ex-presidential aid An for the second consecutive day to find out whether he abused his authority to raise donations for the embattled foundations and whether president Park directly ordered him to help the operation of the foundations.
An allegedly said that local firms voluntarily contributed the money to the foundations, denying his alleged abuse of authority. He also initially said he had voluntarily participated in raising donations out of loyalty to President Park, but later admitted that Park was involved in running the foundations.
The prosecution also summoned the former head of Poreka, an in-house public relations company for Posco, under suspicions that he forced a mid-sized ad company, which bought Poreka, to hand over its shares to a third party in collaboration with Cha Eun-taek, one of Choi’s confidants.
The prosecution is looking into bank accounts belonging to Cha, who is accused of exerting influence on state-backed projects using his ties with Choi, and companies related to him.
It is adjusting schedule to summon for questioning Cha, who fled to China in September amid the snowballing scandal.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org