Posted : 2017-01-12 09:42
Updated : 2017-01-12 21:51

Samsung chief questioned as bribery suspect

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong turned himself in to the prosecution's office this morning for questioning by the independent counsel team over allegations he offered financial support to President Park Geun-hye's confidant Choi Soon-sil in return for business favors. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

SK, Lotte chairmen may face summons

By Jung Min-ho

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was questioned by the independent counsel team Thursday as a bribery suspect for allegedly giving money to President Park Geun-hye's longtime friend Choi Soon-sil in return for business favors from the President.

Lee appeared at the special prosecutor's office in southern Seoul, at 9:30 a.m.

Before entering the office, Lee told reporters: "I'm sorry to the people for failing to show a positive image." He made no more comments.

Lee's summons comes three days after the questioning of two Samsung Group senior executives — Co-Vice Chairman Choi Gee-sung and President Chang Choong-ki — over the major corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving Park, Choi, high-ranking government officials and business tycoons.

The investigation team, led by special prosecutor Park Young-soo, is looking into whether the company financially supported Choi and her cronies in exchange for the government's help with regard to Lee's wish to tighten his control of Samsung's management.

Samsung was the biggest contributor to the Mir and K-Sports foundations, which were under Choi's control, giving her more than 20 billion won ($16.5 million). It is also accused of providing 3.5 billion won to Core Sports (the predecessor of Widec Sports), a paper company Choi and her daughter Chung Yoo-ra set up in Germany. Jang Si-ho, Choi's niece, also received 1.6 billion won from Samsung through a children's sports center she manages.

All this support, investigators suspect, was made with the purpose of taking advantage of Choi's friendship with the President.

In 2015, the National Pension Service (NPS), a key shareholder of two Samsung units — Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T — voted for the merger of the two, which was crucial for Lee to strengthen his control over the group. As the NPS made the decision despite foreseeable losses and the opposition of many shareholders, many suspect the President was behind the deal. Former Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, who admitted abusing his power to press the NPS to vote for the merger, has already been arrested.

Lee Kyu-chul, spokesman for the special prosecutor, said that investigators have secured emails exchanged between Choi and Samsung executives about the money the company sent to her when she was in Germany.

The spokesman added that Lee Jae-yong may face charges of embezzlement and breach of trust if he used the company's money to support Choi.

Lee is also facing perjury charges over his earlier comments at the National Assembly hearing that he had not known about the money offered to Choi and her cronies.

If a link between Samsung's "donations" and the NPS's decision is found, investigators can charge Lee and Park with bribery. The group has claimed it provided the money under pressure from Choi and Park and it did not seek any favors in return.

The next business executive up for questioning will likely be SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, who is also facing bribery allegations.

Investigators reportedly found evidence suggesting that SK gave 11.1 billion won to the Mir and K-Sports foundations in early 2015 in exchange for the release of Chey, who was serving time in prison after being found guilty of embezzlement in 2014.

The special pardon on the Aug. 15, 2015, Liberation Day came less than three weeks after a private meeting between President Park and SK SUPEX Council Chairman Kim Chang-geun. Chey was the only big-name businessman who was released on that day.

Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin is also expected to be questioned soon as investigators are looking into allegations that the company received special favors in winning the right to operate duty free shops in Seoul after its "donations" to the shady foundations.

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