Panel orders outside review of probe into Lee Jae-yongAn ongoing criminal investigation into Samsung leader Lee Jae-yong will be the subject of a review by an outside expert panel, a special committee decided Thursday.
Prosecutors for the past 20 months have been investigating Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee and other top executives to determine whether they broke any laws during a controversial business merger in 2015. The merger strengthened Lee's control over the country's largest conglomerate after his father, Lee Kun-hee, was hospitalized since 2014 following a heart attack.
The citizens’ committee, convened by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, started its meeting at about 2 p.m. in a conference room inside the prosecution building. Prosecutors had randomly selected the committee of 15 people from a 150-member pool one day earlier.
According to sources informed about the process, a teacher, a former public servant, a taxi driver and a self-employed worker were among those selected. After hours of deliberation, the committee's decision was announced after 5 p.m.
The review process was requested by two suspects — Lee and former Samsung executive Kim Jong-joong — and Samsung C&T. They filed a petition June 2 requesting that an outside experts panel review the validity of the ongoing criminal investigation into Lee.
The investigation review system, introduced in 2018, is designed to maintain oversight on high-profile probes and examine the legitimacy of the criminal justice process. When a petition is filed by a suspect for an investigation review, the prosecution is required to convene a citizens’ committee to decide whether to allow it or not. The citizens’ committee was modeled after the grand jury system of the United States and the Prosecutorial Review Commission of Japan.
With the committee's decision to allow the review to proceed, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl must convene the outside experts’ panel.
The review panel is an organ of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, but it is comprised of outside law experts, scholars, journalists and civic activists. The prosecution is required to operate a pool of more than 150 but less than 250 outside experts. Fifteen of them will be randomly selected to examine the validity of the probe and possible indictments.
Prosecutors and Lee’s lawyers will each be allowed a 30-minute presentation in front of the 15 experts.
The citizens committee that met Thursday considered opinions from both sides to decide whether Lee deserved the independent review. Neither prosecutors nor Lee’s lawyers were allowed to make verbal arguments during the meeting, and were only permitted to persuade the members with written statements.
Each party was limited to a 30-page presentation. The committee reviewed a total of 120 pages, as the prosecution, Lee, Kim and Samsung C&T each submitted 30 pages.
Lee and two of his key aides — Choi Gee-sung and Kim, former senior executives of Samsung’s now-dismantled Future Strategy Office — are suspected of violating the Capital Market Act and the Act on External Audit of Stock Companies during the 2015 merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries, along with involvement in a case of suspected accounting fraud at a Cheil affiliate Samsung BioLogics.
Prosecutors have said they conducted a fair investigation and have sufficient grounds to indict Lee. When the prosecution asked for a warrant to detain Lee, the Seoul Central District Court rejected the request, but said the responsibilities of Lee and other Samsung executives should be decided in a future trial.
Lee’s lawyers have argued that there is no reason for the prosecution to avoid the investigation review, if it is confident it can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They also said not allowing an investigation review for Lee would amount to a de-facto death penalty for the system.
Citizens’ committees have not always agreed with petitions for a review. In May 2019, Kim Sang-jin, a YouTuber, asked for an outside expert panel to decide the validity of an investigation into suspicions that he had threatened to kill Prosecutor General Yoon. The citizens’ committee unanimously struck down his request.
The review outcomes, including whether the probe is valid or not and whether Lee should be prosecuted or not, are merely recommendations and are not binding on the prosecution. But the prosecution has respected the review panel’s decisions in each of the eight previous times the process was invoked.
BY SER MYO-JA, NA CHAE-UN [firstname.lastname@example.org]