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Anti-corruption agency raids Seoul education office over power abuse case

Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon accused of abusing power in hiring teachers

Officials from the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials on Tuesday raid the workplace of Seoul education chief Cho Hee-yeon in connection with an ongoing probe against him. (Kan Hyeong-woo/The Korea Herald)
Officials from the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials on Tuesday raid the workplace of Seoul education chief Cho Hee-yeon in connection with an ongoing probe against him. (Kan Hyeong-woo/The Korea Herald)
The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials on Tuesday raided the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education over alleged hiring irregularities surrounding five teachers in connection with an ongoing probe against the city’s education chief. 

Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon is accused of abusing his power by pressing for a special employment process for five teachers who were fired after being convicted of violating the Public Official Election Act.

The CIO officials went up to Cho’s office on the ninth floor of the building in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, to carry out search and seizure operations Tuesday morning. The officials remained silent when asked by The Korea Herald why the watchdog agency had picked Cho as the subject of its first official probe.

The case has stirred controversy and drawn mixed reactions from politicians, civic groups and teachers.

Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung said it left people flummoxed as to why Cho’s case was a priority at a time of growing suspicion over corruption among prosecutors.

Former Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon echoed the mayor’s sentiments, saying the decision “goes against the public’s expectations to thoroughly investigate corruption of high-ranking officials without sanctuary.”

According to a nationwide poll by local broadcaster TBS and the Korea Society Opinion Institute on Monday, 46.2 percent of the respondents said it was not appropriate for the CIO to select Cho’s case as the agency’s first. About 25 percent said they thought it was the right decision.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union went further, denouncing the CIO’s actions as “ridiculous.” The CIO has gone against the people’s wishes for the watchdog to defeat judicial corruption and keep the authorities in check, it added.

Others supported the CIO’s decision.

Six civic groups, including Freedom Union, released a joint statement last week, saying, “Cho Hee-yeon has power equivalent to the Seoul mayor and it is fair for the CIO to probe (into his case). The CIO has a golden opportunity to stand as an institution trusted by the people by spotlessly carrying out its first investigation.”

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations called for a quick and thorough investigation into the allegations too.

“It is regrettable that the head of Seoul’s education, who should be cleaner and fairer than anyone else, was the first to be investigated by the CIO,” the federation said.

As Tuesday’s raid was underway, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said in a statement that it would actively cooperate with the investigation and it believed the CIO would not be swayed by politics but would rule in accordance with the law.

The Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea filed the police complaint against Cho on April 23, asking them to investigate the Seoul education chief on suspicion of violating the law that governs public officials. At the request of the CIO, the police transferred the case to the anti-corruption agency.

Four of the five teachers, who were allegedly hired under Cho’s direction, were fined for taking part in illegal fundraising during the 2008 election for Seoul’s education chief. The other was convicted of spreading false information about a candidate in the 2002 presidential election.

Cho has denied any wrongdoing, saying he thinks the CIO will make a “balanced decision” and that he will state his case regarding the special employment matter.

All eyes are on the anti-corruption agency’s first investigation, as the outcome could be an indicator of the CIO’s competency and political neutrality. But a bumpy road lies ahead for the watchdog.

The CIO cannot file charges against Cho, as its authority to indict accused public officials is restricted to people in certain positions such as judges and prosecutors. It can investigate presidents, lawmakers, mayors and superintendents, but the power to indict still belongs to the prosecution. 

So the CIO could come up empty-handed without the prosecution’s cooperation, even if the anti-corruption agency finds Cho liable.

The CIO was launched in January to uproot corruption among high-ranking officials.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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