Taiwanese first lady at heart of scandal

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It took less than an hour on Friday afternoon for the 78-page indictment of Wu Shu-chen, Taiwan’s first lady, to spread all over the island’s websites. By early evening, students, professionals and housewives were poring over the document and discussing details of what reads like a detective story.

Prosecutors charged the wife of president Chen Shui-bian with alleged corruption, document forgery and perjury. The Taiwan High Court Prosecutors’ Office said she and Mr Chen had “jointly used the opportunities provided by [his] office to swindle” T$14.8m (US$450,000) from a discretionary presidential budget for secret diplomacy and other purposes. They also said they had proof that the president himself had illegally profited from his office.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the presidential office on Friday night. In the weak light of the street lanterns, one of them waved copies of the indictment and screamed: “Shame on you!”

The indictment underscores a fall from grace for both Mr Chen and his wife who were seen as heroes of democracy six years ago. Mr Chen’s victory in the 2000 presidential election on an anti-corruption reform platform completed Taiwan’s first change of ruling party in more than 50 years.

Ms Wu has been wheelchair-bound since she was run over by a truck in what the couple claim was an attack orchestrated by the then ruling Kuomintang. In the first years after Mr Chen assumed office, she was seen as a warm-hearted, good-humoured woman – quite different from the first ladies of the dynasty of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.

But over the past years, most of the public’s goodwill towards the presidential couple has vanished. The first problems started surfacing when Ms Wu failed to report her personal assets under Taiwan’s strict laws several times in 2003 and 2004.

Later, rumours started circulating about her meeting corporate and financial leaders in the presidential residence and accepting large gifts, although she was cleared in an investigation into corruption allegations linked to some of these gifts last month. Friday’s indictment appears to have been the last straw.

It describes in minute detail how Ms Wu allegedly collected receipts from family members and friends and their relatives and servants and sent these to the presidential cashier, who then, on instruction from Mr Chen, paid out funds from a presidential discretionary budget which Mr Chen claims was used for secret diplomacy.

The list of receipts alone provided by Ms Wu is 28 pages long, and it includes 712 entries featuring stationery for little more than T$100, an item marked “Burberry” worth T$38,500 whose actual consumer is listed as Ms Wu’s daughter, but also unnamed items worth almost T$400,000 purchased at an upscale Japanese department store in a northern Taipei suburb.

But while opposition leaders and protesters slammed the presidential couple for allegedly immoral behaviour, others waved bottles of champagne and claimed a victory of democracy.

“First of all, this is a day our country should be proud of,” said Lee Ta-tung, a professor at Chinan University. “In many countries, you cannot take it for granted that prosecutors will move in on the President and the First Lady even if they have done something that’s against the law.”

Mr Chen, who had touted his achievements and announced ambitious plans for his remaining time in office in an exclusive interview with the FT just days ago, remained silent on Friday.

The opposition has given him an ultimatum to step down or face another recall motion. Such a motion could be put to a vote in parliament before the end of the month. If it gets the necessary two-thirds majority, it would need to be approved in a referendum by at least 50 per cent of the electorate.

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