Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou apologised yesterday over a close aide's implication in a bribery scandal linked to a massive building project in Taipei.
The scandal has dealt a serious blow to Ma, and threatens his re-election as Kuomintang chairman in a party poll to be held in mid-July, Taiwanese lawmakers and news media say.
"I am very shocked and saddened that Lai Su-ju, who has been a member of our team for a long time, is involved in a legal case," a solemn-faced Ma said.
Lai, a 49-year-old lawyer and Taipei city councillor who also served as director of Ma's office within the Kuomintang, was held for questioning by prosecutors on Wednesday for allegedly receiving a bribe related to the Taipei city government's NT$70 billion (HK$17.8 billion) "Twin Towers" project to develop west Taipei.
After an eight-hour court hearing on whether to hold her incommunicado, she was released on NT$1.2 million bail early yesterday, pending further investigation. Lai quit all her party positions, including her seat on the KMT's central standing committee.
Ma said: "Being the party chairman, I apologise to all party members and the public."
He promised a thorough examination of the party's integrity, and urged Lai to face the judiciary to clarify the case and reveal the truth.
Ma, who has vowed repeatedly since taking office in 2008 to keep his government free of graft, came under mounting pressure to apologise after Lai, seen as one of his most trusted aides, was implicated in the scandal.
Prosecutors allege that she received NT$1 million for lobbying at Taipei City Council meetings for a consortium, led by Taipei Gateway International Development, to secure priority bidding rights in late 2011 to develop the project.
They also say that Lai was promised NT$10 million if the consortium won the tender.
But the group lost its priority rights to the project after failing to put up a performance bond of NT$1.89 billion by last month's deadline.
Prosecutors say Lai claimed the NT$1 million she had received was just a political contribution and that she returned it last year.
The scandal emerged just months after another Ma confidant, former cabinet secretary general and KMT vice-chairman Lin Yi-shih was indicted late last year for receiving NT$63 billion in bribes.
Lai had briefly served as Lin's defence lawyer but withdrew from the case after learning that prosecutors had audio recordings of Lin allegedly demanding business bribes.
Opposition lawmakers heaped scorn on Ma for being a poor judge of character in filling positions close to him.
Yesterday a number of KMT lawmakers asked Ma to give up seeking re-election as party chairman and "have more time for upholding the clean administration he has promised to the public". Hsieh Kun-hung, a member of the KMT's central standing committee, declared he would run for the party chairmanship to "restore the virtue of the party".
Ma, who had expressed his desire to run for a second four-year term as chairman, had not been facing a challenge before Lai was detained, reports say.