Samsung’s Lee to be questioned Thursday about alleged bribery of president
Lee Jae-yong, the third-generation leader of Samsung Group, will be questioned Thursday as a suspect by an independent counsel in an investigation of whether the country’s largest conglomerate bribed President Park Geun-hye through her controversial friend.
Independent counsel Park Young-soo summoned Vice Chairman Lee of Samsung Electronics to appear for questioning at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. Assistant independent counsel Lee Kyu-chul said Wednesday that the 48-year-old tycoon is a bribery suspect.
The independent investigators are looking into an influence-peddling scandal involving Park, her friend Choi Soon-sil and conglomerates, which led to the presidential impeachment in December. One of the main areas of their investigation is the suspicion that Park influenced the state-run National Pension Service to support a controversial merger of two Samsung units in 2015 in return for generous support of Choi and her family.
The $8 billion merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries allowed a generational leadership shift in the group by solidifying Lee’s grip on Samsung Electronics. Defeating a campaign by a U.S. hedge fund, shareholders of Samsung C&T approved its takeover by Cheil Industries on July 17, 2015. The pension service, Korea’s largest institutional investor, was the largest shareholder of Samsung C&T, and the deal was criticized as being unfair to Samsung C&T.
Samsung Electronics was a generous supporter of Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra, an equestrian athlete. It pledged 22 billion won ($18.4 million) for her training. Samsung Group is also the largest benefactor of two nonprofit foundations that Choi practically controlled. It contributed 20.4 billion won.
Samsung also sponsored a winter sports training program established by Choi’s niece Jang Si-ho to the tune of 1.6 billion won.
Earlier this week, investigators questioned Choi Gee-sung, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, and Chang Choong-ki, president of Samsung’s Future Strategy Office, about the merger, donations and sponsorships.
The independent counsel suspects that President Park and Samsung Vice Chairman Lee agreed on the arrangements in one-on-one meetings. Park met with Lee alone on Sept. 15, 2014 and asked his support for equestrian athletes. Samsung became the chair of the Korea Equestrian Association in March 2015, and investigators suspect that the plans to finance Choi’s daughter were pushed forward since then.
Park and Lee had another meeting on July 25, 2015, 15 days after the controversial merger was approved. Park reportedly expressed her rage about unsatisfactory support for equestrian athletes, and Samsung hurriedly signed contracts worth 22 billion won with Choi in August 2015 to give exclusive support to Chung.
The independent counsel already obtained evidence and testimony that the Blue House was deeply involved in the pension fund’s support of the merger. Moon Hyung-pyo, former health and welfare minister, was arrested last month over his influence on the pension fund’s decision.
The plan to question Lee as a suspect was announced after the independent counsel obtained a new piece of evidence from Jang, Choi’s niece. She submitted last week a tablet PC supposedly used by her aunt from July to November 2015.
The device held about 100 emails about Samsung Group’s hefty donations to Choi and her family and also her founding of a company in Germany, the independent counsel team said.
For now, Samsung Vice Chairman Lee’s summoning as a suspect is not linked to the new evidence, assistant independent counsel Lee said Wednesday. “For now, the charge is giving bribes,” he said. “But more can be added.”
He said the independent counsel will decide who to prosecute from Samsung Group after they question Vice Chairman Lee. Asked if the investigators will request a detention warrant for the tycoon, he said, “All possibilities are open.”
Samsung has strongly denied that its donations and sponsorships were bribes. At a National Assembly hearing on Dec. 9, 2016, Lee said he did not discuss the merger or making of donations when he had exclusive meetings with Park. “I didn’t really know what she was taking about when we were having the meetings,” he said.
Before the lawmakers, Lee also said he does not remember clearly when he became aware of Choi’s existence. “It hasn’t been long,” he said. “[Samsung] never made donations and support in return for anything.”
The independent counsel team views that testimony as an act of perjury. It asked the National Assembly on Wednesday to take legal steps to accuse Lee of perjury.
BY SER MYO-JA[email@example.com]