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(LEAD) Senior auditor blames ex-president for alleged irregularities in river project

2013/10/15 19:35

(ATTN: ADD comments of Lee's aide in last 3 paras)

SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- Former President Lee Myung-bak is partly responsible for the alleged irregularities found in his big-budget project to refurbish the country's four major rivers, a senior state auditor said Tuesday.

Kim Young-ho, the secretary-general of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), was referring to allegations that the Lee government, which finished its five-year term in February, carried out the 22.2 trillion won (US$19.5 billion) river project with a controversial canal project in mind, resulting in bid rigging and increased costs.

The BAI first raised the allegations in a report in July following its third audit of the river project.

"I think former President Lee Myung-bak is partly responsible," Kim said during a regular parliamentary audit of his agency. He was responding to an opposition lawmaker's claim that Lee was fully to blame for pursuing the river project with ulterior motives to build the canal.

Lee had vowed in 2008 to suspend what he dubbed a grand canal project linking Seoul with the southern port city of Busan under stiff public criticism over its economic viability and negative environmental impacts.

The Lee government had also claimed that the river project was aimed at enhancing the country's water management system as well as preventing flooding in the country's four major rivers -- the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan.

However, according to the BAI report, the Lee government drew up a master plan for the river project in 2009 in a way that allowed major industry players linked to the canal project -- including Hyundai Construction and Engineering, GS Engineering and Construction, and Daewoo Engineering and Construction -- to easily collude with each other to win bids for the river project.

The river project has long been at the center of controversy over allegations of shoddy construction, irreversible environmental damage and collusion in the bidding process for construction contracts.

Asked whether the BAI considered taking legal action against the former president during the course of its third audit, Kim said that it had, but concluded that Lee could not be charged in connection with the allegations.

Citing the BAI's written answers to his questions, which were submitted ahead of the audit, the opposition lawmaker Lee Choon-suk of the main opposition Democratic Party also claimed that the former president decided to pursue the river project with state funds under pressure from the major construction firms involved in the canal project.

A close aide to former President Lee slammed the audit agency's comments, saying the project had been pushed "to prepare for two centuries facing climate changes."

   "The BAI is not an omniscient and omnipotent entity that can judge every single national project. I don't understand what grounds the agency has in making such comments," said the aide, requesting anonymity.

"The four-river refurbishment project was irrelevant to the canal-building one ... The achievement of the river project will be assessed by the people and history in the future," he added.

hague@yna.co.kr

graceoh@yna.co.kr

(END)

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