Samsung head faces his 2nd round of questioning

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Samsung head faces his 2nd round of questioning

Samsung’s de facto head, Lee Jae-yong, faced questions by special prosecutors for the second time on Monday about a bribery scandal involving the conglomerate, President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil.

The 48-year-old tycoon appeared for the interrogation by independent counsel Park Young-soo’s team in the morning. “I will tell, in good faith, all the truth to the independent counsel once again today,” Lee said.

The independent counsel said Sunday that it wants to question Lee for the second time to confirm charges it additionally investigated during the past three weeks.

Lee was first questioned on Jan. 12, for 22 hours, but a local judge struck down the investigators’ request to detain the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics as a suspect on Jan. 19.

Initially, investigators focused on allegations that Park pressured the state-run National Pension Service to support a merger of two Samsung units in 2015 in return for the conglomerate’s generous support of Choi and her family and massive donations to two foundations controlled by Choi.

The merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries in July 2015 played a key role in Samsung’s third-generation transfer of management control by solidifying Lee’s grip on Samsung Electronics. He was accused of having paid and promised to pay a total of 43 billion won ($37.4 million) in bribes using Samsung’s money.

While the independent counsel said Samsung willfully paid Choi, Samsung said it was coerced by Park to offer financial support to her friend. After the Seoul Central District Court rejected the investigators’ request to detain Lee, special prosecutors searched for other evidence that the Park administration systemically gave special favors to Samsung.

According to a source from the independent counsel, the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) was suspected of going easy on Samsung during its investigation into the conglomerate’s cross-shareholdings. In October 2015, the FTC ordered Samsung SDI to reduce cross-shareholdings that were expanded by the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries in the previous month.

The antitrust watchdog initially ordered Samsung SDI to sell 10 million shares in Samsung C&T, but two months later, it reduced the number to 5 million. “During the process, Samsung and the FTC had some dealings,” the source said.

“We have circumstantial evidence that Vice Finance Minister Choi Sang-mok, who was the presidential secretary for economy and finance, pressured the FTC at the time at the order of An Chong-bum, then economic senior secretary,” a source from the independent counsel team told the JoongAng Ilbo.

An and presidential confidante Choi are currently undergoing criminal trials on charges of coercing conglomerates, in collusion with the president, to support the nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.

Investigators already raided the FTC and the Financial Services Commission on Feb. 3. They also questioned former vice chairman of the FTC and the current head of the FTC. Vice Minister Choi and President Chang Choong-ki of the groups’ Corporate Strategy Office were also questioned on Sunday.

But Samsung denied the allegation, saying Samsung SDI sold the shares voluntarily based on the FTC’s guidelines.

As the investigators were grilling Lee, assistant independent counsel Lee Kyu-chul said Monday afternoon that the team will consider seeking a detention warrant against the tycoon once again. He said the decision will be made separately from the team’s questioning of President Park.

When the team’s initial warrant request was turned down last month, the judge said the grounds were insufficient because the suspected receiver of the bribe, President Park, was not questioned.

Investigators planned to question Park last week, but she boycotted a scheduled session in protest of a media report about its date and location.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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