(Corrects number of former prosecutors on the team in paragraph 8)
By Ju-min Park
SEOUL, March 20 (Reuters) - A lawyer known as her “bullet-proof vest” is on former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s legal team. So are two failed candidates for parliament from her ruling party.
Park has turned to a group of loyalists for her legal defense as she faces questioning on Tuesday from prosecutors as a criminal suspect in a widening corruption probe that has already cost her the presidency.
Her legal lineup is a stark contrast to the star-studded team assembled by Samsung Group head, Jay Y. Lee, who is on trial on charges of bribing Park. They include high-powered former prosecutors now with one of the country’s top law firms, Bae, Kim & Lee, known for its litigation expertise.
Park has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged in the case. She could face more than 10 years in jail if convicted of receiving bribes from Lee and other “chaebol” bosses in return for favours in the scandal.
Park, 65, became the first democratically elected leader to be removed from office when the Constitutional Court on March 10 upheld her December impeachment by parliament. Park’s lawyers said she would cooperate with the prosecutors.
“I know and believe that Park is innocent, even if the press and the world have made her look like a criminal,” Sohn Bum-kyu, one of the seven lawyers appointed by the former leader, told Reuters.
Sohn is a one-term member of parliament who Park personally campaigned for in his losing bid for a second term in 2012. He has not worked as a prosecutor or as a judge, normally part of the resume when establishing an influential private practice.
Among her officially appointed team of seven lawyers, three have previously been prosecutors, but none of them in senior posts - a departure from the usual pedigree of lawyers defending high-profile persons in South Korea criminal trials.
Sohn said the legal team is bigger than that.
“There are more lawyers behind president Park Geun-hye and seven appointed lawyers, but they did not want to be known because they don’t want to go through hard times in media,” Sohn said.
Yoo Yeong-ha, known as her “Bulletproof Vest” and who has been Park’s legal voice since the beginning of the scandal in October, is also on the legal team.
Yoo was a legal adviser to Park’s Saenuri Party, standing for parliament three times under its banner, and losing each time.
He was seen visiting Park’s residence several times last week carrying a briefcase, but did not respond to reporters upon arrival and departure and declined to comment for this story.
Yoo, who has called Park his political mentor, said in an interview with Reuters in December he did not hesitate for a moment when offered the job as her lawyer. “I have complete faith in the president.”
A senior attorney at one of South Korea’s largest law firms said many high-profile lawyers were reluctant to take a strongly politically tinged case like Park‘s. The attorney declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Moreover, many of the country’s top lawyers or their firm’s partners have already been retained by South Korea’s embattled conglomerates, he said.
Most of Park’s lawyers were involved in her unsuccessful defence at the Constitutional Court trial, which turned on trying to discredit the process and the integrity of the bench rather than building a rigorous legal case of her innocence.
One of them, Hwang Seong-wook, said it was his personal conviction about a client, not political considerations, that determines whether he will take a case.
“My own criteria to accept cases or not is this: if a person is a bad person no matter how positive public opinions are about that man, I would say no. It works the other way too,” Hwang told Reuters.
Hwang said key to the defence of any charges Park might face is that she did not gain personally from the chaebol’s contribution to the foundations backing her policies and did not pressure businesses leaders.
“We will carry on what we’ve been saying at the constitutional court and add some new facts as time goes on,” Hwang said.
Her lawyers declined to provide an estimate of Park’s legal costs, which are generally not the same as Western countries. One source close to Park’s case said the fees were not extravagant and Park was personally paying the cost.
“They should be committed and working hard on this long journey, rather than making a lot of money out of this,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Jack Kim and Bill Tarrant