The Korea Herald


[KH Explains] Mysteries, scandals surround whistleblower’s death

Allegation of proxy legal payment for Lee Jae-myung comes back into public focus

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : Jan. 19, 2022 - 14:53

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People Power Party lawmakers call for a thorough investigation at the Supreme Prosecutors‘ Office on Jan. 12, claiming that the death of Lee Byung-chul is an “indirect murder.” The Democratic Party has since filed a criminal complaint against People Power Party floor leader Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, accusing him of spreading false information. (Joint Press Corps) People Power Party lawmakers call for a thorough investigation at the Supreme Prosecutors‘ Office on Jan. 12, claiming that the death of Lee Byung-chul is an “indirect murder.” The Democratic Party has since filed a criminal complaint against People Power Party floor leader Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, accusing him of spreading false information. (Joint Press Corps)
Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung’s campaign has been marred by a level of drama unusual even by the standards of Korea’s convoluted and chaotic politics -- deaths of three individuals with links to allegations involving the candidate.

The latest death was reported on Jan. 12, when the police found the body of lawyer named Lee Byung-chul in a motel room in Yangcheon-gu, western Seoul. He was found about three days after his sister reported him missing.

His death immediately caused controversy, with some raising calls for thorough investigations into Lee Byung-chul's death and the allegations he made – namely that Lee Jae-myung had his legal fees paid for him by someone else in 2018.

While initial forensic results have indicated that Lee Byung-chul died from underlying heath problems, questions still remain as to how his death came about.

Deceased lawyer at the center of allegation

Lee Byung-chul was seen by the opposition bloc as a key informant on Lee Jae-myung.

He is believed to be the first person to have provided a civic group with information that Ssangbangwool, local underwear manufacturing firm, paid for the presidential candidate’s legal fees when he was on trial on charges of election law violations.

The trial, on charges of spreading false information during the 2018 gubernatorial election campaign, ran until the middle of last year. The alleged violation occurred during a TV debate in which he claimed to have played no part in his brother being admitted to a psychiatric ward.

The civic group filed a complaint with the prosecution in October, claiming the total legal fees for the proceedings would have been around 10 billion won ($9 million).

Lee Byung-chul claimed that the firm paid prosecutor-turned-lawyer Lee Tae-hyung 300 million won in cash and 2 billion won in stocks for his work defending the politician from October 2018 to September 2020. The former prosecutor was just one of 30 lawyers employed in Lee’s defense.

The informant provided recordings of conversations between himself, the defense attorney and a businessman identified by the surname Choi. In the recordings, the three are believed to be in talks over details of the payment.

The revelation raised serious questions, as Lee testified during an annual audit in October that he spent 256 million won in total on legal fees for his defense.

The ruling party nominee claimed then that many of the attorneys -- who happened to be his colleagues from the Judicial Research and Training Institute -- took on the case pro bono, helping him to reduce costs.

Choi testified to prosecution that he and Lee Byung-chul invented the story about payment of fees and the amount involved as part of an attempt to draw donations, although it is not confirmed what these donations were supposed to be for.

"Although I do not remember the past conversations in detail, I have mentioned that the statement that lawyer Lee Tae-hyung received more than 2 billion won from Gov. Lee Jae-myung as legal fees was made up by myself and Lee Byung-chul," Choi reportedly said in a written testimony to the prosecution.

Further accusations

But the main opposition People Power Party claims that Lee Jae-myung could have used his power as Gyeonggi Province governor and used funds from the provincial government to compensate his lawyers.

According to data obtained from the Gyeonggi Provincial Government by People Power Rep. Park Soo-young, four lawyers who provided legal defense for Lee Jae-myung in the case received payments from the provincial government and its agencies for legal servies.

For the trial in question, Lee Jae-myung claimed to have spent 256 million won for their services -- an average of 8.5 million won per lawyer. Park claims Lee Jae-myung of providing rest of the compensation with funds from the Gyeonggi Province Government and its subordinate agencies.

"If Lee Jae-myung indeed used taxpayer money to finance his legal defense, it really is a serious problem that puts his public office role on the line," Park said in December upon revealing the data.

One of the four involved lawyers immediately denied Park’s claim, saying he had his firm sign a separate agreement to provide legal services for Gyeonggi Province Government’s agencies, adding the contract is unrelated to the proxy legal payment scandal.

Ssangbangwool, the manufacturing firm accused of paying for Lee Jae-myung’s legal fees, was found in November to have seen four of its top executives each donate 10 million won in campaign support funds for Lee Jae-myung during his primary race.

Can it really cost that little?

Even considering Lee Jae-myung’s claims that many of the lawyers took his case pro bono, the difference between his reported costs and those of similarly high-profile cases is enormous.

The case has been compared with that of Hyosung Group Chairman Cho Hyun-joon, who is thought to have spent 40 billion won on legal fees for trial proceedings that ended at the Supreme Court.

Rep. Park questioned how Lee Jae-myung could have spent only 256 million won when he used a greater number of lawyers -- all with years of experience in the prosecution and top-tier law firms -- for a case that also led up to the Supreme Court.

"His argument is highly likely to be a lie," Park said in October in making the comparison through a Facebook post.

"It’s either that someone else paid for the defense instead of him or that these lawyers provided defense for little cost in exchange for promises for benefits when Lee Jae-myung becomes president."

Local regulations impose no standards in how much compensation must be given for lawyers in return for their services. And no legally restrictive guideline is set in any manner on how much or little a lawyer can receive in their line of work.

Legal professionals are also not entitled to reveal how much they earned from each case, while they are to reveal how much they earned per year if registered as a business entity.

"I have rarely seen any case where legal services are provided to high-profile figures pro bono," a Seoul-based lawyer who requested to remain anonymous told The Korea Herald.

"We can only suspect that some kind of lobby happened in the background or like some say, that payment was made by someone else secretively. But who knows? These lawyers could have really provided their time and hard work in return for nothing just because they are close to Lee Jae-myung."

Homicide ruled out, but questions remain

While many speculated Lee Byung-chul’s death could be linked to his decision to publicly go against Lee Jae-myung, police have ruled out the possibility, with the National Forensic Service determining that Lee died alone in his motel room after a major artery ruptured.

Officials said there were no signs of violence or forced entry at the scene. Lee Byung-chul likely died on Jan. 8 after returning to the room by himself, the same day his sister reported him missing to the police.

Initial reports on Lee Byung-chul’s death immediately prompted claims that he was “forced to commit suicide” as he is the third figure to have died after being in relation to allegations involving Lee Jae-myung. People's Party presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo -- went as far as to claim that there "must be a planner and implementer" behind the deaths.

The People Power Party has referred to the death as an "indirect murder."

Before Lee Byung-chul, two officials implicated in the Daejang-dong land development scandal have also been found dead.

Kim Moon-ki, head of the development division at the Seongnam Development Corp., was found dead on Dec. 21, days after Yoon Han-gi, head of the Pocheon Urban Corp. who was connected to the scandal, was found to have died by suicide on Dec. 10.

Political implications for Lee Jae-myung

While no credible information links Lee Jae-myung to the deaths, some experts say rival candidates could benefit from the event by undermining Lee Jae-myung’s appeal to morality.

Opposition parties accused Lee Jae-myung and his party of effectively pushing Lee Byung-chul to the brink of death, as he must have been immensely stressed with pressure from Lee Jae-myung’s supporters and his aides after becoming the first whistleblower on the case.

"This case is not likely to have any big impact for now, but it could serve as another point where voters become concerned of Lee Jae-myung’s moral standards," said Eom Gyeong-yeong, director of the Zeitgeist Institute.

"I believe the People Power Party knows the value of this opportunity, so that’s why its lawmakers are making strong offensive moves right now. This issue could arise later during TV debates and help people stay reminded of allegations involving Lee Jae-myung."