John Kerry’s campaign collected a maximum $2,000 check from the recently arrested son of South Korea’s disgraced former president, and some of its fund-raisers met several times with a South Korean government official who was trying to organize a Korean-American political group.
The Kerry campaign said it did not know about the $2,000 donation from Chun Jae-yong or his background until informed by the Associated Press, and has decided to return the money to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“We are sending the check back,” spokesman Michael Meehan said.
South Korean government officials said a top official in its Los Angeles consulate office returned home last month amid “speculation” he had engaged in Democratic politics, but they do not believe any laws were broken.
Mr. Chun was arrested in February by South Korean authorities on charges of evading taxes on $14 million in inheritance money. His father, former President Chun Dooh-hwan, was convicted in 1997 on bribery charges.
Chun Jae-yong was business partners last year with Rick Yi, one of Mr. Kerry’s major fund-raisers in the Asian-American community. Mr. Yi acknowledged soliciting the donation from Mr. Chun last summer before learning of his legal problems.
“I didn’t think anything wrong of it,” said Mr. Yi, who has raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger, and Democratic causes.
Mr. Yi, a former military attache in the Clinton White House, said he was business partners with Mr. Chun for about six months last year in a Duluth, Ga., company called OR Solutions Inc. When making his donation Aug. 11, Mr. Chun listed himself as the company’s president and chief operating officer.
The same day, Mr. Yi also made a $2,000 contribution to Mr. Kerry, listing himself as chairman and chief executive of OR Solutions. Mr. Yi said Mr. Chun had asked him to help set up the company and that he ended his affiliation late last fall.
South Korean-U.S. relations have been strained over the North Korean nuclear-weapons program and the Bush administration’s decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Seoul.
Mr. Yi said his conversations with Mr. Chun never centered on fund raising.
He also said he found it odd that a South Korean diplomat was trying to organize an American political group.
The Los Angeles consulate’s office has heard “speculation” that Mr. Chun was supporting the Democratic Party and Mr. Kerry, but hasn’t investigated and doesn’t believe Mr. Chun violated the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against foreign involvement in politics or any U.S. law, spokesman Min Ryu said.
Mr. Kerry has been raising record amounts of money for his presidential campaign as he tries to level the playing field with President Bush, who has collected an unprecedented $218 million for his re-election. Mr. Kerry’s campaign checks the backgrounds of all fund-raisers and requires noncitizen donors to show proof they are legal residents allowed to donate.