South Korea's independent counsel team investigating a scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, is taking aim at bribery charges against Samsung Group, as well as suspected abuse of power by a former top presidential aide.
The team on Monday summoned a former senior official at the country's national pension fund on charges of dereliction of duty over the merger in July 2015 between Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T, a deal to create a de-facto holding company of South Korea's largest family-run conglomerate.
It was extremely crucial to Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong to inherit management control from his father Chairman Lee Kun-hee who has been hospitalized for over two and a half years for heart attack.
Foreign owners of Samsung C&T shares, including U.S.-based hedge fund Elliott Management, opposed the deal on an unfair merger ratio. But the deal was approved by just over the two-thirds of Samsung C&T shareholders with the support from the National Pension Service (NPS), then-single largest shareholder of the Samsung unit.
Hong Wan-sun, the former NPS official, is suspected of having downplayed oppositions to the deal from outside advisory groups and having played a key role in encouraging the national pension fund to vote for the merger.
Moon Hyung-pyo, then-health and welfare minister supervising the national pension fund, is suspected of having ordered the NPS to cast the decisive vote for the merger.
Investigators from the independent counsel team reportedly raided the homes of Moon and a former presidential secretary on health and welfare earlier in the day, as part of investigation into their possible pressures on the NPS.
The team officially kicked off its probe last Wednesday into the scandal involving the impeached president and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Prosecutors stormed the offices of the health and welfare ministry and the NPS on the day, indicating its main targetting of the bribery charges between Samsung and Choi.
Samsung is suspected of having offered a financial assistance to Chung Yoo-ra, Choi's daughter, for her equestrian training in return for President Park allegedly ordering the NPS to support the merger through Choi's brokerage. By local law, the bribery can sentence Choi and President Park to the maximum of life imprisonment.
The No. 1 South Korean conglomerate also made the biggest donation among tens of chaebols to two nonprofit sports and culture foundations presumably controlled by Choi.
Former vice minister of culture, sports and tourism Kim Chong, who was summoned by the special prosecutor team on Saturday and Sunday, is reportedly set to be summoned again later in the day for his involvement in the bribery charges.
According to local newspaper Hankyoreh, the independent counsel team found that the former culture and sports minister met with a Samsung Electronics president to discuss the way of financially assisting Choi's daughter, an equestrian athlete.
The meeting came just days before President Park sit down face-to-face with Samsung Vice Chairman Lee in July last year. Text messages exchanged at the time among Samsung executives who are close aides to Vice Chairman Lee showed the discussion on how to support the equestrian training of Choi's daughter.
Meanwhile, the special prosecutor team took aim at former presidential chief of staff who is suspected of having been involved in, or at least connived at, wrongdoings linked to the scandal.
Investigators raided the home of Kim Ki-choon, who served as chief secretary to President Park between Aug. 2013 to Feb. 2015, to secure computer hard disks, diaries and mobile phones, according to local media reports.
The team's deputy spokesman Hong Jung-seok confirmed the reports, but he did not elaborate further.
Kim is seen as one of key men in unraveling the complicated scandal involving President Park and Choi Soon-sil as he is one of the closest aides to the impeached president.
He worked as the department head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), predecessor of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), in charge of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) affairs in the 1970s under former President Park Chung-hee, father of the impeached leader.
Under the Park Geun-hye presidency, Kim is suspected of having deeply engaged in the highest-level, presidential decision-making process as Park's chief secretary, including the illegalities surrounding the scandal.
The special prosecutor team searched Kim's home on suspicion that he ordered the vice culture minister in Oct. 2014 to fire six senior culture ministry officials, abusing his power. The team is reportedly investigating into Kim's illegal involvement in the culture and sports ministry's other personnel management.
The Monday search and seizure may be a sign that the independent counsel takes off his coat to its investigation into the former presidential chief of staff's involvement in the scandal.
Investigators also raided the residences and offices of the culture ministry officials, including Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun.
President Park Geun-hye on Sunday denied allegations against her of involvement in a corruption scandal surrounding her longtime confidante, as the Constitutional Court accelerates its legal review of her impeachment case.
The president expressed frustration at what she termed "distorted and false" suspicions and "erroneous" media coverage, during the New Year's greeting meeting with reporters, the first such event since she was impeached on Dec. 9 over the highly-charged scandal.
Park also vowed to "conscientiously" respond to the ongoing probe, which Independent Counsel Park Young-soo launched last month to look into multiple charges against the president, including abuse of authority, coercion and leaking of official secrets.
"Rumors, stories and broadcasts have been distorted, and false information has been getting out of hand," Park said during the meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. "Misunderstandings have begotten misunderstandings, and erroneous reports led to the reproduction of other erroneous reports ... I feel heavy-hearted."