South Korea bribery trial fo­cuses on Sam­sung heir talks with Pres­i­dent

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South Korean pros­e­cu­tors pur­su­ing bribery charges against Sam­sung heir Jay Y. Lee ze­roed in on a five-minute chat with the coun­try’s Pres­i­dent as the start of a re­la­tion­ship that put both be­hind bars. The land­mark trial of South Korea’s most pow­er­ful busi­ness fig­ure fo­cused Wed­nes­day on what tran­spired dur­ing a tete-a-tete in Septem­ber 2014. Pros­e­cu­tors al­lege Mr. Lee ac­cepted then-Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye’s re­quest to sup­port eques­trian train­ing for the daugh­ter of a close friend, an­tic­i­pat­ing it would help se­cure gov­ern­ment sup­port for busi­ness deals. But Mr. Lee’s lawyers said he couldn’t pos­si­bly have sought fa­vors from Park dur­ing a quick con­ver­sa­tion on the side­lines of a pub­lic event.

SOUTH KOREAN pros­e­cu­tors pur­su­ing bribery charges against Sam­sung heir Jay Y. Lee ze­roed in on a five-minute chat with the coun­try’s Pres­i­dent as the start of a re­la­tion­ship that put both be­hind bars.

The land­mark trial of South Korea’s most pow­er­ful busi­ness fig­ure fo­cused Wed­nes­day on what tran­spired dur­ing a tete- a- tete in Septem­ber 2014. Pros­e­cu­tors al­lege Lee ac­cepted then-Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye’s re­quest to sup­port eques­trian train­ing for the daugh­ter of a close friend, an­tic­i­pat­ing it would help se­cure gov­ern­ment sup­port for busi­ness deals. But Lee’s lawyers said he couldn’t pos­si­bly have sought fa­vors from Park dur­ing a quick con­ver­sa­tion on the side­lines of a pub­lic event.

Mr. Lee’s hear­ing — dubbed the “trial of the cen­tury” in Korea — threat­ens to ex­pose a murky web of ties be­tween top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and the rich­est fam­ily in the coun­try. On Wed­nes­day, the bil­lion­aire stared qui­etly in front of him as his lawyers fought al­le­ga­tions that meet­ings with Park helped Lee en­gi­neer a 2015 merger that ce­mented con­trol over Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics Co.

As ev­i­dence, pros­e­cu­tors pro­duced a let­ter the con­glom­er­ate sent to a lo­cal lob­by­ing group be­fore the piv­otal merger of Sam­sung C&T Corp. and Cheil In­dus­tries, Inc., op­posed by El­liott As­so­ciates LP. In that memo, Sam­sung sought the lob­by­ists’ as­sis­tance, ex­press­ing fears of a hos­tile takeover by a for­eign fund and cit­ing “na­tional in­ter­ests.”

Both Lee and Sam­sung have de­nied wrong­do­ing. They have ar­gued that the com­pany is a vic­tim in the scan­dal and was pres­sured into making con­tri­bu­tions.

Mr. Lee, the 48-year-old vicechair­man of Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics, has been de­tained since Fe­bru­ary on charges he em­bez­zled cor­po­rate money to bribe Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil through gifts of mil­lions of dol­lars and a horse for her daugh­ter. Ms. Park, ousted from of­fice last month, has also been de­tained on bribery charges. Both have de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.

While Mr. Lee didn’t speak dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s hear­ings, pros­e­cu­tors pre­sented his tes­ti­mony from when he was ques­tioned be­fore the trial.

That in­cluded de­tail­ing his rec­ol­lec­tion of a 2015 in­ci­dent when Ms. Park be­rated him dur­ing a pri­vate meet­ing.

“She sud­denly changed tones and started scold­ing me,” Mr. Lee said, ac­cord­ing to the tes­ti­mony. “She said Sam­sung wasn’t do­ing enough send­ing ath­letes abroad for train­ing and buying them good horses, which all helps to make bet­ter per­for­mance at the Olympics.”

Pros­e­cu­tors said Mr. Lee con­vened a meet­ing with Sam­sung of­fi­cials af­ter­ward and “or­dered” them to do a bet­ter job. Mr. Lee’s lawyers dis­puted that, say­ing he had only “con­veyed” the Pres­i­dent’s com­ments.

The heir to the Sam­sung em­pire is among the most prom­i­nent fig­ures im­pli­cated in a scan­dal that’s reached the high­est lev­els of busi­ness and gov­ern­ment. Mr. Lee’s as­cen­sion to the top of South Korea’s big­gest con­glom­er­ate has stalled as he re­mains in de­ten­tion dur­ing the trial.

The world’s big­gest maker of smart­phones this month posted its best quar­terly op­er­at­ing profit in nearly four years on the back of its work­man­like semi­con­duc­tor and dis­play units. Its lat­est mar­quee de­vice, the S8, be­gan ship­ping this week. The Su­won, South Korea-based com­pany said last week it had ac­cepted more pre-or­ders for the gad­get than its pre­vi­ous ver­sion, the S7.

Still, Mr. Lee’s de­ten­tion may de­lay long-term strate­gic moves such as ac­qui­si­tions and re­struc­tur­ing. The court pro­ceed­ings are sched­uled to end by late May un­der a law that fast-tracks cases ini­ti­ated by a spe­cial prose­cu­tor.

Ac­cord­ing to the tes­ti­mony pre­sented by pros­e­cu­tors, Mr. Lee sees his role as fo­cused on con­tact­ing and man­ag­ing clients and part­ners abroad with each af­fil­i­ate in the con­glom­er­ate work­ing on their own busi­nesses, that is then re­ported through the con­glom­er­ate’s cor­po­rate strat­egy of­fice.

Mr. Lee’s lawyers said the pros­e­cu­tion has over­played his role in the com­pany and have made an er­ror in equat­ing his sta­tus with his fa­ther Lee Kun-hee, the man cred­ited with trans­form­ing Sam­sung into a global be­he­moth.

The el­der Mr. Lee has been hos­pi­tal­ized since a heart at­tack in 2014, which has re­sulted in his son tak­ing a big­ger role at the group. The trial re­sumes Thurs­day. —

SAM­SUNG GROUP chief Jay Y. Lee arrives at a court in Seoul, South Korea, April 7.

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