SGI Ikeda and Yoo Byung-eun Salvationists
Date: July 28, 2014 01:26AM
Yoo Byung-eun and Ikeda are cut from the same cloth, religious swindlers turned into multimillionaire businessmen and investors using Other People's Money, then followed by using others money to promote themselves as 'artists" and even both calling themselves photographers.
Where are the investigations into SGI, and where have the Ikeda family put the SGI billions?
Has SGI used the same scam as below, getting SGI to buy Ikeda's "artwork" at inflated prices to funnel money back to the Ikeda family?
SEOUL, South Korea — After all the lavish galas in his honor at landmarks like the Louvre and Versailles, the tens of thousands of devotees following his religious teachings for decades, the hundreds of homes and businesses reportedly stashed around the globe, Yoo Byung-eun ended up alone, his body splayed on its back and rotting in the weeds, empty liquor bottles by his side.
The family used a sprawling group of at least 70 companies on three continents as a personal A.T.M., prosecutors say. In their own names or through companies that they control, family members own at least $8 million worth of real estate in the United States alone, including a condominium at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan, and have the rights to be an American distributor of Debauve & Gallais, the French maker of luxury chocolates once favored by Marie Antoinette. In France, they own an entire hilltop village.
The family also spent tens of millions of dollars to lionize Mr. Yoo, a convicted swindler known best in South Korea in connection with the mass suicide of 32 members of a splinter group of his church more than two decades ago.
Hoping to reinvent him as a Zen-like artistic genius, a family business donated $1.5 million to the Louvre, which then etched his new identity — the pseudonym Ahae — in gold on a marble wall at the museum. The family inaugurated a worldwide tour of his photos at Grand Central Terminal in New York and spent nearly $1 million to rent space as part of a deal to exhibit his work for months at Versailles, the palatial former home of French monarchs.
A sumptuous affair to begin the event, catered by a Michelin-starred chef, drew ambassadors and celebrities like the mother of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the singer-model wife of the former French president, according to Le Figaro. At a separate concert at the end of the exhibition, the London Symphony Orchestra played, premiering a brand new piece: Symphony No. 6 “Ahae.”
Mr. Yoo’s grand ambitions started in boyhood. A sickly child, he dreamed of becoming “a sculptor greater than Michelangelo,” according to a collection of sermons published in 1981. But soon after high school, in the 1960s, he found a new calling: religion.
The source of his inspiration was an American Christian missionary, whose teachings led the young Mr. Yoo to evangelize as well, his church website says. A charismatic speaker, he soon had enough followers to help found a new religious movement with a fellow preacher — following a well-worn tradition in South Korea, the birthplace of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church.
Mr. Yoo’s church, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, now claims to have 100,000 members, adhering to a polarizing interpretation of how Christians reach salvation.
“They no longer have to repent, even if they commit such sins as adultery and thievery; they are lawless people,” said Jin Yong-sik, a Presbyterian pastor in Anseong and an expert on fringe churches in South Korea. “Yoo Byung-eun is a cult leader. He is deified as a Moses or a messiah among his followers, and they give him money as he pleases.”
As Mr. Yoo built his church, he embarked on a second career, as a business magnate. Starting in the 1970s, he turned the church into a source of cash, investigators and former and current Salvationists say, by persuading adherents to donate to or invest their savings in his growing number of companies.
Some of his businesses found a particularly captive market in his flock, selling to his followers. In recent years, they marketed products related to the church’s teachings such as green tea and even enema kits to cleanse members’ bodies of impurities.
This type of approach gave him a source of cash in an era when South Korea was still impoverished and was just beginning its so-called economic miracle. Money for investment was hard to come by, so by using church members as a source of capital, he was able to build factories and companies at the same time that Samsung and Hyundai rose to prominence, though he never matched their size.
By the 1980s, he had built a mini-chaebol, or family-run business group, that over the years has included a dizzying array of products, from a top-selling shark oil supplement and organic milk to cosmetics, auto parts and special paint for nuclear plants.
“They mixed religion with business, pooling donations from church members to use in buying and expanding businesses,” Lee Jin-ho, a prosecutor, said during a hearing in June. “Management, key shareholders and even internal auditors were all Salvationists, so there was no system of check and control. If the Yoo family demanded money, the companies complied.”
In a church sermon recorded in 2005, Mr. Yoo exhorted his followers to stick together against what he called continued persecution for their beliefs.
“Things are tough for us, and others treat us like rags, but we must remember: ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,’ ” Mr. Yoo said, quoting from Matthew.
Prosecutors and financial regulators contend that Mr. Yoo and his family invented increasingly creative ways to enrich themselves. One way was by charging Yoo-controlled companies fees to use some of the more than 1,300 patents and trademarks that they claimed, many of which prosecutors say were a sham. In one case, investigators say, Mr. Yoo’s elder son, Dae-kyoon, 43, charged the ferry company, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, $1.45 million for the right to use the name of one of its own ferries. The other son owned the rights to the name Sewol, the ferry that sank, though it was unclear if he ever charged the company to use it.
At the same time, regulatory filings show, the Yoos owned no shares of Chonghaejin, at least not on paper. But the ferry company’s largest stockholder was a shipbuilding business, Chonhaiji Co., that in turn was controlled by I-One-I Holdings, an investment company where Mr. Yoo’s two sons are listed as controlling shareholders. The prosecutors also say that behind the scenes Mr. Yoo acted as the chairman and chief decision maker of the ferry company — which family representatives have denied — and earned a salary of almost $10,000 a month.
Mr. Yoo was able to operate behind the scenes so effectively, prosecutors said, because the ferry company’s chief executive, Kim Han-sik, was a loyal church member who followed Mr. Yoo’s orders and hid a 10 percent share of the ferry operator for Mr. Yoo under his name. Mr. Kim recently admitted in court that he embezzled $131,000 from the ferry company to pay consulting fees to Mr. Yoo’s brother.
Prosecutors say that Mr. Yoo and his two sons, or companies that they controlled, received a total of at least $3.82 million from the ferry company in recent years. On top of that, regulatory filings show, the ferry company spent $2.5 million to buy stakes in other Yoo-affiliated companies, including one that prosecutors say contributed to Mr. Yoo’s art exhibits abroad.
But as money was being funneled to the Yoo family, the ferry company was struggling financially, reporting a loss of $764,000 last year, regulatory filings show — leaving little left over for the kind of training and safety precautions that could have helped crew members respond to the emergency on the Sewol.
Artistic Alter Ego
Of all the family’s schemes, prosecutors and financial regulators say, the most elaborate involved the photographs taken by Mr. Yoo’s artistic alter ego, Ahae.
The Yoos and their associates forced their own businesses, including the ferry company, to buy his photos at inflated prices, pitching them as good investments, prosecutors say. Church members also bought photos, although some followers were skeptical that they would prove valuable in the future, according to Mr. Yi, the Salvationist who is a spokesman for the group.
Some supporters championed investing in Mr. Yoo’s photos in the hope that prices would spike. But others, despite their qualms, bought the photos to try to rehabilitate Mr. Yoo’s reputation — and, by extension, their church’s.
“It has been a long grievance for us all these years, the bias against our church,” Mr. Yi said. “We had expectations that if Ahae was internationally recognized as a photographer and if people learned that Ahae was actually Yoo Byung-eun, it may help dispel the misunderstanding and prejudices against our church in South Korea.”
Previously unheard of, Ahae — an outdated term for child in Korean — seemed to burst onto the art scene three years ago with the series of exhibitions of his nature photos held at famous locations around the world. The exhibit at the Louvre — in rented space in the museum’s gardens — was paid for by Ahae Press Inc., a company in New York. Ahae Press was run by Mr. Yoo’s younger son, Yoo Hyuk-kee, 41, who usually goes by the name Keith. The rental of the space alone cost more than a half-million dollars, and did not include the cost of a specially built pavilion.
The traveling exhibit, sometimes called “Through My Window,” featured photos taken every day for four years from a window in Mr. Yoo’s studio in a wooded church complex south of Seoul, according to church members. In a written statement in response to questions, the managing director of Ahae Press, Michael Ham, said that Mr. Yoo took 2.7 million photos from the same window in a project inspired by his prison stay, when he viewed the outside world through a prison window.
Mr. Yoo, who in his guise as Ahae cultivated an air of mystery by only allowing himself to be photographed from behind or the side, is described by the website of Ahae Press as a sort of renaissance man: “an inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmental activist, martial artist, painter, sculptor, poet, and photographer.”
“The exhibitions were a way to increase public awareness of the beauty of nature and need to preserve the natural environment,” Mr. Ham wrote. “In our view, a beautiful and worthwhile endeavor has been distorted and virtually destroyed by false statements and inaccurate media reports,” he said, in an apparent reference to the criticism leveled at Mr. Yoo since the ferry disaster.
The company that operated the Sewol ferry, Chonghaejin, was one of the companies that bought Mr. Yoo’s art. In an interview with a Korean magazine before his arrest in May, the company’s chief executive said Chonghaejin had spent almost $100,000 to buy 200 coffee-table books of Mr. Yoo’s photos. Prosecutors said the ferry company also spent $107,000 for seven photos.
Other Yoo-associated companies paid even more per photo, they said, with one spending as much as $21,400 each.
There is, however, little evidence that the photos have much market value. Art experts, dealers and auction houses said they were unaware of any of the photos’ being sold to serious dealers or collectors.
“My informed opinion as a museum curator for the last 15 years is there is no market for these works at any price. You couldn’t give them away,” said Christopher Phillips, curator of the International Center of Photography in New York, who has organized exhibitions of Asian photography. Speaking of Mr. Yoo, he said, “This guy has woven together all past Korean scams, both economic and religious, and he’s created a more universal one.”