For a relatively modest sum of money, a South Korean industrial tycoon used a nonprofit group set up by advisers to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to gain access to dozens of the nation’s top political and military leaders.
The list of officials who have either visited South Korea on behalf of the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council (KORUSEC) or met here with its founder include DeLay, Vice President Cheney, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and a host of top military brass and diplomats.
Despite a media uproar focusing on whether the trips to Korea by DeLay and other lawmakers violated House ethics rules, the deep, bipartisan ties that KORUSEC chairman Kim Seung-youn forged in just a few short years have been largely overlooked, even though they underscore the power of having the right connections when seeking an entree with official Washington.
Kim, the CEO of the Hanwha Group, an explosives, chemical and insurance conglomerate, created a nonprofit organization in early 2001 with help from a former DeLay aide, Ed Buckham. Most if not all of the roughly $1.5 million raised by KORUSEC from 2001 to 2003 appears to have come from Hanwha, according to disclosure records on file with the Justice Department.
K Street lobbying firms, including Buckham’s, were in turn paid in excess of $340,000 by KORUSEC over that same period.
KORUSEC is at the heart of a growing scandal over foreign travel that has swept up DeLay and at least 11 other lawmakers. KORUSEC underwrote the costs of a trip the Texas Republican took to South Korea in August 2001, despite the fact that organization registered with DOJ under the Foreign Agents Registration Act three days before DeLay’s trip began. Under House ethics rules, lawmakers are not allowed to accept trips paid for by foreign agents.
As it currently stands, DeLay and the 11 other Members who went to Korea on KORUSEC’s tab appear to have violated Congressional ethics rules. They are Reps. John Carter (R-Texas), Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa).
All of them deny knowing the organization was a registered foreign agent.
KORUSEC tried in mid-2002 to alter its registration status with the Justice Department, arguing that it was “not a group working on behalf of foreign principal or political party [but] rather a 501(c)3 educating organization.” In its request, KORUSEC actually noted that it “should not have registered with FARA,” and stated that the organization wanted to “deregister.”
But KORUSEC’s attempts to change its status apparently encountered a roadblock. It has continued to file reports under FARA, with the most recent period of disclosures covering activities in 2004.
DOJ spokesman Brian Sierra said he could not speak specifically about KORUSEC, but he said that generally, individuals seeking to deregister do so by filing a supplemental statement with the FARA office.
“One of the questions key to deregistering, is basically, has your connection with any foreign principal ended during the six-month reporting period,” Sierra said. On KORUSEC’s deregistration filing, the organization did not indicate a dissolution of their relationship with Kim or Hanwha.
A staffer in the Justice Department’s FARA office said that the department does not publicize its analysis of FARA, but noted that if an entity had continued to file reports after attempting to deregister, one could safely assume that its efforts had been unsuccessful.
In addition to his private-sector role, Kim also appears to have an official relationship to the South Korean government, but its exact nature is hazy.
On the Hanwha Group’s Web site, Kim lists himself as an “Ambassador for International Economy & Trade, Republic of Korea.” The South Korean Embassy in Washington did not respond to inquiries requesting information on Kim’s official status.
Officials of KORUSEC and Hanwha also failed to return multiple calls for this story.
KORUSEC, which is classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational group, looks like it was set up to boost Kim’s personal standing in both Seoul and Washington and the position of his company.
A “workplan” for the organization — drafted in February 2001 by the Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm run by Buckham, DeLay’s former chief of staff — laid out in some detail KORUSEC’s goals in setting up meetings for Kim with high-level Washington officials to discuss the company’s “Seoul operations,” as well as relations between South Korea and the United States.
Joel Johnson, a former top aide to both President Clinton and Daschle, worked closely with ASG on the KORUSEC project.
By the end of 2001, if he were to follow ASG’s plan, “Chairman Kim will be well-positioned to be the premier business statesman in Korea and Hanwha’s global position will have been strengthened.”
Kim himself is a controversial figure in Seoul. Last November, Kim was fined the equivalent of $29,000 after he admitted to having provided illegal donations to the Grand National Party prior to South Korea’s 2002 presidential elections. For a period in 2004, while under investigation for election-funding improprieties, Kim was prohibited from leaving his own country.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, aides to four of the lawmakers who took part in KORUSEC’s trips to South Korea and other Asian countries said that they and their bosses were unaware of the legal problems Kim had been facing at home.
But after reviewing Asian press reports of Kim’s legal troubles, one GOP aide half-jokingly characterized the businessman as the “Jack Abramoff of Korea,” referring to the once-powerful Republican lobbyist who is currently the subject of federal and Senate investigations for charging excessive fees to numerous Indian tribes and using the money, in part, to pay for questionable trips for lawmakers.
In the period from 2001 to 2004, Kim, through KORUSEC, was able to meet with a veritable who’s who of American policymakers, either during their trips to Korea or his own frequent excursions to the United States. The run of contacts, disclosed in documents filed by KORUSEC with the Justice Department’s FARA office, demonstrates a familiarity with the Beltway’s power elite that would make any Fortune 500 CEO envious.
In Washington in June 2001, Kim met with Hastert, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Kim later hosted a luncheon for Hastert in Seoul in January 2002. The Speaker’s office now acknowledges that Hastert may have violated House ethics rules by going to that event, which was paid for by KORUSEC. Hastert was in Korea on an official Congressional delegation visit, or CODEL, with Blunt and Flake.
“The Speaker attended an event with parliamentarians, Korean government, U.S./Korean military, business and U.S. State Department officials while on an official trip in Korea hosted by an organization that was registered as foreign agent,” Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s spokesman, said Thursday. “Had we known at the time this organization was registered in this capacity, [Hastert] would not have attended the event.”
Blunt and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), as well as then-Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), were part of that January 2002 lunch.
During 2001, Hanwha International Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of the Hanwha Group, gave $300,000 to the 60 Plus Association, a pro-Republican seniors’ organization, according to federal campaign records. The Hanwha Group has pharmaceutical interests in addition to its other businesses.
In late March 2002, a delegation of senior Congressional staffers went to Seoul on a KORUSEC-funded trip. This group included aides to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Reps. Blunt, Payne, Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and John Spratt (D-S.C.), and then-Reps. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.).
In May 2002, Kim met with then-Senate Majority Leader Daschle and hosted a luncheon on Capitol Hill on U.S.-South Korean relations, including a speech by former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Richard “Dixie” Walker.
On June 10, 2002, Kim took Torkel Patterson, then a senior U.S. official in Japan, to a World Cup soccer match in Taegu, South Korea. Patterson was named president of Raytheon International last month.
In September 2002, Kim was elected to the board of governors for the USO, the foundation that helps build morale for men and women in the U.S. military. KORUSEC and Hanwha have donated at least $40,000 to that organization.
In January 2003, Kim visited Washington, D.C., and met with Sen. Clinton, Feeney and then-Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.). On the same trip, he also gave Sen. Clinton a purse. With an invitation from DeLay, Kim attended the State of the Union address.
In May 2003, Kim was again in Washington as he traveled with Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on an official state visit. This time, Kim huddled with a large group of lawmakers that included DeLay, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and senior U.S. military officials.
In August 2003, KORUSEC spent $57,000 to host eight Congressional staffers at a retreat at the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
One attendee said the event included several briefings on the U.S.-Korean relationship. Attendees included aides to Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who chairs the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, as well as staffers for Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Richard Baker (R-La.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and David Wu (D-Ore.).
In October 2003, Kim met with Cheney while on a visit to Washington. Two weeks later, he attended an event also attended by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.)
Also in October 2003, KORUSEC hosted President Clinton as Kim’s personal guest in Seoul. The former president met with President Roh and former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung.
In November 2003, KORUSEC flew five lawmakers — Carter, Garrett, Honda, McDermott and Faleomavaega — to Seoul in the first of what it hoped would be an annual Thanksgiving Day event.
Two weeks later, a staff delegation that included an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived in Seoul. Other attendees worked for Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).
In February 2004, KORUSEC hosted “the first in an ongoing series of evening social events in Washington” at Lounge 201 on Capitol Hill. These events were designed “to expand relations with House and Senate staff.”
KORUSEC’s filings with the Justice Department illuminate other ties between the group and Capitol Hill.
For instance, Julie Doolittle, wife of the California Republican, appears to have handled bookkeeping for the controversial group.
In a June 2004 letter from Doolittle to KORUSEC Assistant Secretary Ed Stewart, also filed with the Justice Department, the Congressman’s wife listed three contributions totaling $460,000 that KORUSEC apparently received between 2001 and 2002.
In a separate e-mail to KORUSEC staffer Courtney Alexander, Doolittle discussed the group’s finances: “The only other deposits that appear are interest income, reimbursements, payroll adjustments, etc.,” wrote Doolittle, who runs her own fundraising, event planning and bookkeeping business, Sierra Dominion Financial Services, out of the Oakton, Va., home where she and her husband live.
Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson confirmed that the Congressman’s wife handles the foreign agent’s finances.
“Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, Inc. is a small business owned by Julie Doolittle that performs bookkeeping, event planning and related services to numerous clients,” said Robinson in a statement. “Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions currently provides bookkeeping services to the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council.”
This is not the first time Julie Doolittle’s work has come under scrutiny. Last year, her business records were subpoenaed in connection with a grand jury investigation of Abramoff, the GOP lobbyist who is reportedly a close friend of the Congressman.
Suzanne Nelson and Megan King contributed to this report.