Graft probe of close aide deals blow to Ma's credibility

Lai Su-ju, the head of president's KMT office, allegedly took NT$1m for helping consortium to win the tender for a major construction project

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 March, 2013, 5:04am

Taiwanese prosecutors are investigating claims of corruption involving a close aide of President Ma Ying-jeou. That deals a blow to the credibility of Ma, who has vowed repeatedly since taking office in 2008, to keep his government free of graft.

Lai Su-ju, 49, director of Ma's office within the Kuomintang (KMT), was held for questioning on Wednesday by prosecutors who suspect she received a bribe related to the "Twin Towers", a huge construction project in Taipei valued at NT$70 billion (HK$17.8 billion). Through her lawyer, she offered to quit all her party posts, including Ma's KMT office director and member of the central standing committee.

After questioning Lai overnight, prosecutors yesterday sought court approval to hold her incommunicado; the decision was still pending last night. Lai is also a Taipei city councillor.

"We have searched [Lai's] residence and Taipei office and taken [her] back to help with our investigation," said Huang Mao-hsin, a spokesman for the Taipei District Prosecutors Office. Lai is suspected of receiving at least NT$1 million for lobbying at Taipei City Council meetings for a multinational consortium, led by Taipei Gateway International Development, to secure priority bidding rights in November 2011 to develop the project.

Prosecutors also said Lai was promised a total of NT$10 million if the consortium won the tender.

However, the consortium lost the bid, and prosecutors said Lai claimed that the NT$1 million she had received was just a political contribution and that she returned it last year.

The allegations sent shockwaves through Ma's administration and the Kuomintang, especially since Lai - a former KMT spokeswoman - is close to Ma in his capacity as party chairman. A key member of Ma's "inner circle", Lai had acted as the lawyer for senior KMT officials in various lawsuits.

Media and opposition lawmakers said it was ironic that Lai was being investigated for graft, given that she had served as a defence lawyer in July for a formerconfidant of Ma, ex-cabinet secretary-general Lin Yi-shih, who was indicted for receiving more than NT$63 million in bribes. Lai withdrew herself as Lin's lawyer after learning from prosecutors that they had audio recordings of Lin demanding bribes.

"If Lin came as a shock to Ma, Lai is now the atomic bomb that destroys the so-called clean image and integrity of Ma and his government," said lawmaker Chen Ting-fei, adding that Ma should apologise for being a poor judge of character in filling positions close to him.

Ma, who has taken pains in trying to uphold clean governance credentials in the past five years, declined to comment yesterday. KMT spokesman Yin Wei said yesterday that the party hoped the investigation could be cleared up as soon as possible.