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Samsung leader is named a suspect in South Korean bribery inquiry

In December, Jay Y. Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung, answered questions during a parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul.
In December, Jay Y. Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung, answered questions during a parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul.JEON HEON-KYUN/European Pressphoto Agency/Pool/File 2016

SEOUL — A special prosecutor investigating the corruption scandal that led to President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment summoned the de facto head of Samsung for questioning on Wednesday, calling him a bribery suspect.

Jay Y. Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung, will be questioned on Thursday, according to the special prosecutor’s office, which recommended that he also be investigated on suspicion of perjury. Lee effectively runs Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate; he is the son of its chairman, Lee Kun-hee, who has been incapacitated with health problems.

He is expected to be asked whether multimillion-dollar donations that Samsung made to two foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of the president, amounted to bribes, and what role, if any, he played in the decision to give the money. Investigators at the special prosecutor’s office have questioned other senior Samsung executives as suspects about the bribery accusations.


Neither Samsung nor Lee responded immediately to the announcement on Wednesday.

Allegations that Park helped Choi extort millions in bribes from Samsung and other companies are at the heart of the corruption scandal that led to the National Assembly’s vote to impeach her last month. Since then, Park’s powers have been suspended, and she is on trial at the Constitutional Court, which will ultimately decide whether to end her presidency.

Last month, Lee testified at a National Assembly hearing that he was not involved in the decision by Samsung to make the donations. He also said that the donations were not voluntary, suggesting that the company was a victim of extortion, not a participant in bribery.

The reference on Wednesday to possible perjury charges against Lee stemmed from that testimony. The special prosecutor’s office said it had evidence that Lee had “received a request for bribery from the president and ordered Samsung subsidiaries to send bribes to destinations designated by the president.”


It asked the National Assembly to file a perjury complaint against Lee, which would authorize the special prosecutor to open an investigation of that charge.

Asked whether investigators would seek to arrest Lee on bribery charges, a spokesman for the special prosecutor’s office, Lee Kyu-chul, said, “All possibilities are open.”

In November, state prosecutors indicted Choi on charges of coercing 53 big businesses, including Samsung, to contribute $69 million to her two foundations. They identified Park as an accomplice but stopped short of filing any charges against the businesses, all of which insisted that they were under government pressure to donate.

In its impeachment bill, the National Assembly asserted that the donations were bribes, made with the expectation of political favors from the president.

The special prosecutor, which took over the investigations from the state prosecutors last month, has been looking into possible bribery charges against not only Park but the businesses, particularly Samsung. Park cannot be indicted while in office.

Samsung gave the largest donations to Choi’s foundations, totaling $17 million. Unlike the other corporate contributors, it went beyond support for the foundations, signing an $18 million contract with a sports management company that Choi ran in Germany, to fund a program for training Korean equestrians, which mainly benefited Choi’s daughter. Samsung also contributed $1.3 million to a winter sports program for young athletes that Choi and her nephew ran.

Also on Wednesday, the special prosecutor’s office said it had acquired a tablet computer used by Choi that contained e-mails she exchanged with a Samsung executive. The e-mails contained information about the financial support provided by Samsung, the prosecutor’s office said.


The special prosecutor has been investigating whether Samsung gave its support to Choi in exchange for a decision by the government-controlled National Pension Service to support a contentious merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015. Moon Hyung-pyo, chairman of the pension fund, was arrested last month on charges that he illegally pressured the fund to back that merger when he was South Korea’s health and welfare minister.

The national pension fund’s support was crucial for the merger, which analysts said helped Lee inherit control of Samsung from his father.