Director of South Korea's Earthquake Research Center Convicted of Money Laundering in Million Dollar Bribe Scheme
The Director of South Korea’s Earthquake Research Center at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) was convicted yesterday following a four-day jury trial of laundering bribes that he received from two seismological companies based in California and England through the U.S. banking system. Sentencing is scheduled to occur before the Honorable John F. Walter of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, on October 2.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown for the Central District of California and Assistant Director in Charge Deirdre Fike of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, announced the conviction.
Heon-Cheol Chi (Chi), 59, of South Korea, was convicted of one count of transacting in criminally derived property, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957. According to the charges, the funds that he laundered were proceeds derived through violations of South Korea’s bribery law, Article 129 of South Korea’s Criminal Code.
“International corruption undermines the rule of law, threatens our national security, and harms honest companies who are playing by the rules,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Blanco. “As this case demonstrates, the Criminal Division will hold responsible the companies and individuals who are paying bribes to foreign government officials, and the foreign government officials themselves. For the second time in recent months, the Criminal Division has convicted a foreign official who solicited bribes and then laundered the illicit proceeds in the United States. We will continue to hold such individuals responsible and accountable.”
“The American financial system is not to be used as a storehouse for the proceeds of corrupt activity,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Brown. “This defendant used a bank account here in Southern California to conceal over one million dollars in bribe money obtained through the abuse of his public position. This conviction sends a message that should be heard around the world.”
“Defendant Chi exploited the U.S. banking system to enrich himself and to conceal his corrupt practices,” said Assistant Director in Charge Fike. “The FBI and our partners will continue to hold accountable international offenders who gain the advantage on the global playing field by breaking U.S. law.”
According to the evidence presented at trial, between at least 2009 and 2015, Chi abused his official position at KIGAM to demand and receive over $1 million in bribes from two seismological companies in exchange for providing them with unfair business advantages in the South Korean seismological market. In particular, the trial evidence showed that Chi advocated the purchase and use of equipment from these two companies by KIGAM and other South Korean customers, and he provided these companies with market intelligence and inside information, including confidential information about their competitors and the KIGAM bidding process. The evidence also showed that Chi directed that his bribe payments be paid in cash or wired to his personal bank account in Glendora, California. From that account, Chi transferred approximately half of those bribe payments to an investment account he held in New York City and spent approximately 70 percent of the remaining funds back in South Korea, where he resided and worked, according to the evidence.
In addition to his use of cash payments and the U.S. banking system, the trial evidence showed that Chi took a number of steps to conceal his bribery scheme, including instructing representatives of the companies to delete or not respond to his emails, requesting that these company representatives not inform his colleagues at KIGAM of his illegal arrangements with these companies, and by sending fictitious invoices listing a false address in New Jersey. As Chi acknowledged in an email to one of the companies in 2005, “Usually I deleted almost all e-mail or papers related to [payments from these companies] because I am the director of earthquake research center and I am not allowed to be involved in it.”
The evidence at trial included numerous additional emails in which Chi admitted that he was acting illegally. For example, Chi wrote to a company representative in 2014, “I am a governmental officer and I should not have any contact with [a] private company. Moreover, it is illegal to assist any company related to the test.”
According to the trial evidence, the total of the bribe payments to Chi exceeded his legitimate income from KIGAM by a substantial margin and, during the relevant time period, Chi was paid more in bribes than in KIGAM salary.
The case is being investigated by the FBI’s International Corruption Squad in Los Angeles. Trial Attorneys David Fuhr and Anna Kaminska of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Poonam Kumar of the Central District of California are prosecuting the case. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs also provided substantial assistance in this matter.
The Department is grateful to the government of South Korea for providing substantial assistance in gathering evidence during this investigation. The Department also thanks its law enforcement colleagues in the United Kingdom for their assistance in the Department’s investigation.
The Fraud Section is responsible for investigating and prosecuting all FCPA matters. Additional information about the Justice Department’s FCPA enforcement efforts can be found at www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/foreign-corrupt-practices-act.