Counsel reviews if the money was bribe or donation

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Counsel reviews if the money was bribe or donation

Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, returned home Friday after he was grilled for 22 hours by the independent counsel investigating the power abuse and corruption scandal of President Park Geun-hye.

Lee, the third-generation leader of Samsung Group, is accused of using company money to bribe President Park through her controversial friend, Choi Soon-sil. Investigators suspect that Park put pressure on the state-run National Pension Service to support a controversial merger of two Samsung units in 2015 in return for the conglomerate’s generous support of Choi and her family and donations to two foundations controlled by Choi. The merger in July 2015 played a key role in the third-generation transfer of control of Samsung by solidifying Lee’s grip on Samsung Electronics.

The ongoing probe into the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to the president’s impeachment and Choi’s indictment is expected to determine four factors before it pronounces its results on Lee.

First, the probe may have to determine whether the money Samsung provided Choi was intended as bribes or as funding for a social cause. Samsung contributed 20.4 billion won ($17.4 million) to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi, the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations.

“It is difficult to see the money that Samsung provided to Choi as something other than bribes, likely induced by President Park,” said an official of the independent counsel. “The money is just too large in size.”

Samsung has been denying the allegation, saying the funding was for a social cause and granted without realizing Choi was linked to it.

In a similar case in 2009, whereby former chief presidential secretary Byun Yang-gyun was accused of having coerced about 10 companies to pay some 780 million won to fund a museum run by his girlfriend, the Supreme Court ruled Byun not guilty of third-party bribery. The court said the amount of funding was similar in size to that of any sponsoring for a social cause.

Second, the probe will have to determine whether all the money that Samsung granted the two foundations linked to Choi, to her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, and to a winter sports education center established by Choi’s niece, Jang Si-ho, was in return for the pension fund’s support of the merger.

Lee and Samsung denied the allegation but the counsel sees them as acts of bribery, meant to woo Park to pressure the pension fund to support the merger that solidified Lee’s grip on Samsung.

In a similar case in 1996, the Supreme Court ruled heads of conglomerates guilty for providing hundreds of billions of won worth of bribes to former President Chun Doo Hwan.

“The money is deemed to be bribes given by the simple fact that it was given to the president,” said the court in its sentence. “There is no need to look further into the details of what the heads of conglomerates wanted in return for the money.”

Third, the counsel may have to determine whether the relations between Park and Choi were such that the money Choi received could lead to Park. If this is proven, then the counsel can indict Park for receiving bribes and Lee for providing bribes.

“We have not yet determined specific details of the indictment,” said a counsel official. “Proving that the money Choi received was to lead to Park is also not an easy matter.”

Finally, the counsel will have to determine whether Lee, in providing the funding to foundations linked to Choi, had known that they were bribes to Park, who he may have conceived had power over the merger.

BY IM JANG-HYUK, KIM NA-HAN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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