(Yonhap Editorial)

SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- Reported cases of bribery linked to tax officials are common and not new, but a new scandal involving the national tax agency's Seoul regional office has made people dumbfounded. Police said Thursday a total of nine former and incumbent employees of the office allegedly took bribes from companies they were investigating. The suspects, including six officials at the Seoul tax office, are accused of receiving about 316 million won (US$271,000) in kickbacks from seven different private companies, including food makers and shipping companies, for about one year starting in September 2009, according to the National Police Agency.

It marks the first time that the whole team was found to have systemically accepted the kickbacks from the companies it was probing, officers said, adding that the nine later allocated the bribes depending on their ranks. The NPA said it has sought arrest warrants against three of them, including a 54-year-old team leader whose identity is being withheld, and booked four others without physical detention. The NPA notified the agency about the other two for allegedly receiving gift certificates, it said. A total of 12 former and incumbent employees of the firms have also been booked without physical detention for the investigation on charges of bribing the tax officials, the NPA said. Police officers said they are continuing with the investigation to find out whether the tax office officials gave part of the money to their superiors.

The police's investigation suggests that all members of the office's team were in cahoots to commit wrongdoing or engaged in what can be billed as group corruption, a marked deterioration in the behavior of public servants.

Unfortunately, the tax agency has a reputation as a government agency that has had the largest number of its chiefs put behind the bars for various wrongdoing or compelled to quit in disgrace. As such, the office is exposed to certain room for wrongdoing and unlawfulness. Past administrations have endeavored to come up with measures to help make the agency break with tax levying-related wrongdoing and injustice. But these measures do not appear to have paid off. That's why tax officials have been continuously called "cats who are commissioned to take care of fish ships."

The latest incident involving tax officials is a farce given that the Park Geun-hye administration has stressed the importance of avoiding tax evasion as part of its efforts to implement the welfare policies promised during her campaign. Park has said the government should intensify efforts to bring the underground economy above ground and uproot tax evasion so as to raise funds for those projects. The underground economy refers to economic activities, which are not calculated in a country's official GDP data and leaves the government unable to impose taxes.

It is the national tax agency that should take the initiative to increase tax revenue as part of a move to finance welfare spending. In this regard, the reported wrongdoing is more than enough to make us disappointed more than ever because it has turned out that everybody on the team was involved in the scandal. What is hoped is that this kind of wrongdoing is confined to the team only. If that's not the case, we are absolutely without hope.

<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>