Former head of South Korean geoscience center convicted of laundering $1 million in bribes

The former head of South Korea’s earthquake research center was convicted this week of laundering more than $1 million in bribes from two seismological companies, including one based in Pasadena, that paid him in exchange for insider information.

After a four-day trial, a federal jury convicted Heon-Cheol Chi, a 59-year-old resident of South Korea, of one count of transacting in criminally derived property, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The jury failed to reach a verdict on five other counts of money laundering.

Chi’s conviction hinged on the jury’s determination that the payments were illegal under South Korea’s bribery laws. Prosecutors said Chi abused his public position by accepting kickbacks, but his attorney argued that consulting agreements are common in South Korea and that the law was not properly explained to the jury.

“Money laundering is only a crime if you can prove the money came from an illegal source. The only illegal source they charged him with was violating Korean law,” said defense attorney Joel Koury, adding that Chi was never charged with taking bribes in South Korea. “If the judge got Korean law wrong, then it’s not a crime.”

For years, Chi headed the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources’ Earthquake Research Center in South Korea, where he tested seismological equipment, offered technical certifications for equipment used in government-funded projects and developed an early-warning earthquake system.

Starting in at least 2009, two companies — Kinemetrics in Pasadena and Guralp in the United Kingdom — began dumping large sums of money into Chi’s bank account in Glendora, authorities said.

In turn, prosecutors said, Chi gave those companies an upper hand in doing business in South Korea, advocating for the purchase and use of their equipment and offering confidential information about their competitors and the research center’s bidding process.

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