Thu, Nov 09, 2006 - Page 3 News List

Officials keep quiet on ring case

DIAMOND DILEMMA The Presidential Office's deputy secretary-general said the first lady's attorneys would have to be consulted about information related to her court case

By Ko Shu-ling and Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Hsu Shao-ping, left, and Tsai Chin-lung hold a press conference yesterday to criticize the Presidential Office's recent comments on the first family's purchase of a NT$1.3 million diamond ring.

PHOTO: CHIEN JUNG-FONG, TAIPEI TIMES

The Presidential Office kept a low profile yesterday after a series of inconsistent comments about whether President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) used money from the "state affairs fund" to buy diamond rings for the first lady.

"Concerns about the details of the case are beside the point," Presidential Office Deputy Secretary-General Liu Shih-fang (劉世芳) said. "Whatever other details are circulating out there, the main thing to keep in mind is that not a single dollar of the fund has gone to the president's own pockets and that all the money has been used for public purposes and diplomatic missions."

Liu's comment came in response to media inquiries about inconsistent statements by Presidential Office Spokesman David Lee (李南陽).

Lee said on Tuesday morning that two diamond rings had been paid for by the first family although receipts for the purchases were used to apply for reimbursement from the fund.

Lee later said Chen bought one of the rings, worth NT$1.3 million (US$41,484), for first lady Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), who then gave it to her mother.

He did not offer a clear account for the other ring, valued at NT$320,000, at that time.

On Tuesday afternoon Lee told a TV station that Chen bought the second ring for Wu to show his appreciation for her accepting an award on his behalf from the Liberal International in France.

The award ceremony, however, was held in November 2001 and prosecutors said that the ring was purchased in June last year. Wu did not make any overseas trips last year.

When questioned about the discrepancy, Lee said he needed time to double-check the facts.

Late Tuesday night the Presidential Office issued a brief statement saying that Lee's remarks about the two rings "needed further verification."

Lee admitted yesterday that he had been hasty in making his remarks and should be held responsible for the resulting confusion.

But he dismissed speculation that he would be punished.

Liu said yesterday that officials at the Presidential Office are neither lawyers nor judges and any comments they make could have an impact on a future court ruling.

As Chen has made it clear that he would step down if Wu is convicted of graft and forgery, Liu urged the public and media to refrain from focusing attention on specific details.

Liu promised to make public some of the court findings -- at an appropriate time and within legal limits -- after consulting with the first lady's lawyers.

Meanwhile, the prosecutors' allegation that Wu had reimbursed the "state affairs fund" for a diamond ring from Tiffany's sparked discussion in the Legislative Yuan yesterday.

A group of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers called a press conference titled "Looking for the Tiffany diamond ring" to satirize the Presidential Office's changing explanations for the expenditure.

"It's hard to believe that Chen would leave office if Wu were found guilty in the first trial since he is so undependable. How could he forget where the diamond ring was? It's not a cheap thing," KMT Legislator Tsai Chin-lung (蔡錦隆) said.

"The president has lied over and over again and has set a bad example" to educate the next generation and he should resign for the good of the country, Tsai said.

KMT Legislator Hsu Shao-ping (徐少萍) demanded the first family pay a "gift tax" if one of the diamond rings was given to the first lady's mother.

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