Lee Jae-yong holds firm as bribery case nears end

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Lee Jae-yong holds firm as bribery case nears end

The de facto leader of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, denied charges of bribery on Thursday, stressing that the third-generation management transfer of the country’s largest business group was never a part of his one-on-one meetings with Park Geun-hye when she was the president.

Lee took the stand for two days since Wednesday as part of his trial at the Seoul Central District Court. The 49-year-old tycoon and four former Samsung executives were prosecuted for having offered or promised bribes to Park and her friend, Choi Soon-sil. The bribes totaled more than 43 billion won ($38.4 million), including donations for cultural and sports foundations that Choi practically controlled, and generous sponsorship for equestrian training of Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra.

Throughout this week, the accused were questioned by the independent counsel team and their lawyers before the judges. Lee’s questioning began Wednesday and continued Thursday for nine hours. It was the first time that Lee spoke directly about the charges involving him since the trial began in April.

Both the independent counsel and defense lawyers focused their questions on Lee’s one-on-one meeting with Park on July 25, 2015. The meeting took place shortly after the merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries was approved. The deal cemented Lee’s grip on Samsung Group, and the independent counsel has argued that Samsung bribed Park through Choi in return for the president’s help to influence the state-run National Pension Service to use its voting right to support it.

Asked if Park brought up the succession issue during the meeting, Lee said “no.” Lee also said the president did not make a demand to support Chung in return for the government’s support.

Lee also said he was scolded by Park for having failed to offer proper support for the equestrian community, but did not know it was linked to Chung’s sponsorship. Lee earlier said he did not know about the existence of Choi or Chung until the media started reporting about the scandal late last year. “I was never scolded by anyone but my father until then,” Lee said. “It was an exclusive meeting with the president, and it was the first time that a woman reproached me. So I was in a panic.”

He said he still did not pay special attention to the Samsung’s support for the equestrian athletes because he thought other Samsung executives would take care of the issue. “At the time, I was annoyed,” he said. “Why is the president bothering me with this? Why is she bringing it even though the Korea Equestrian Federation is not a serious issue?”

Lee said his third meeting with Park on Feb. 15, 2016, also did not address the succession issue. “I never thought I could get the government’s help in my succession by accommodating the president’s demands,” he said.

He, however, said he was afraid that Samsung would face political retaliation because of Park’s furor over JTBC, which was critical of the administration. Asked by his lawyers about the third meeting in 2016, Lee said, “I could feel that she was pouring out what she was holding in her heart.” Stressing that the mood was so tense, Lee said, “After the meeting, I even wondered if she summoned me to talk about JTBC.”

Asked by Judge Kwon Eun-seok what Samsung will gain by impressing Park or lose by getting on the wrong side, Lee said he did not think the president would seek to harm Samsung over the issue of supporting equestrian athletes. “But when she talked about JTBC, I felt a sense of crisis that we would face retaliation if our position was politically misunderstood,” he said. On Wednesday, Lee also told the court that Park was furious about JTBC’s reports when he met her in February 2016. The broadcaster is an affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo and Korea JoongAng Daily.

“Although it was not recorded in the statement made after my investigation by the independent counsel,” Lee said, “I want to explain this because it shows the mood of my meeting with Park.”

“How can the JTBC news program, an affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo, do this?” Park was quoted as telling Lee. “Isn’t [Samsung] the largest advertiser for the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC?”

According to Lee, Park even called JTBC an “organization that benefits the enemy,” and demanded him to use his influence. Lee said the second half of his meeting was devoted to Park’s criticism of JTBC.

“I could not say a word. If I refuted her, I would have just fueled her anger,” Lee said. “It wasn’t a mood to ask for a favor or something.”

On Wednesday, Lee also stressed that he was the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and was never involved in decisions made by the Future Strategy Office, the highest decision-making body of Samsung Group. The office led most of the projects linked to Choi and Chung.

During Wednesday’s questioning, the independent counsel presented as evidence a pocket diary belonging to An Chong-bum, former senior secretary for policy coordination in the Park Blue House. The independent counsel said the content was what Park told An after she met with Lee for the third one-on-one meeting in 2016. Lee said some of the content were discussed during the meeting, but some were not.

Asked by the independent counsel if Lee discussed a plan for the Samsung Life Insurance’s transition into a financial holding company during his meeting with Park, based on An’s records, Lee flatly denied it. “It was never mentioned,” he said. “I only work for Samsung Electronics and its affiliates, so I have no knowledge of the subject. I don’t think it is something you would bring up carelessly.”

Lee also challenged An’s testimony. “I am not sure why he told you that,” he said. “I was the one who attended that meeting.”

After the nine-hour grilling, the court allowed the independent counsel and defense lawyers to have a debate by summarizing their arguments. The court will hear closing arguments on Monday and start a deliberation. A ruling is expected to come later this month.

BY KIM SUN-MI, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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