Houston Chronicle

Questions linger as Samsung chief back in prison

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SEOUL, South Korea — Lee Jaeyong, chief of the sprawling Samsung conglomera­te, returned to prison Monday for bribing a former South Korean president, leaving major questions hanging over the fate of one of the world’s largest business empires.

The Seoul High Court sentenced Lee earlier Monday to 2 ½ years in prison for bribing Park Gyun-hye, the president who was impeached in 2016 on corruption charges. He will serve only 1 ½ years because he had already spent about a year in jail on previous charges tied to the case.

“Your Honor, I have nothing to say,” Lee said when the presiding judge gave him a chance to make a final statement.

The bribery case is not Lee’s only legal trouble. In September, he was indicted on separate charges of stock price manipulati­on and unfair trading. The trial related to those charges has only just begun. Lee has said that he is innocent.

Samsung said it had no comment on the court’s ruling. Lee Injae, the lead lawyer on Lee’s defense team, said Monday that Lee and Samsung were victims of Park’s abuse of presidenti­al power. But the court found that Lee had been a willing participan­t in the bribery scheme.

Pro-business groups have warned that Lee’s long absence from hands-on management could spell disaster for Samsung and the South Korean economy.

But Samsung’s executives have filled in for Lee before. When he was in jail in 2017, Lee was given briefings on key issues and provided instructio­ns when his executives visited him behind bars, and that is likely to happen again, said Kang Jong-min, a chaebol expert at Solidarity for Economic Reform, a watchdog group in Seoul.

In August 2017, a Seoul district court sentenced Lee to five years in prison for offering 8.9 billion won, or $8 million, in bribes to Park and to her secretive friend, Choi Soon-sil, to obtain the government’s support for a merger of two Samsung subsidiari­es in 2015

In 2018, the Seoul High Court found that the bribes had totaled just 3.6 billion won, reduced Lee’s prison term to 2 ½ years, and suspended the sentence.

But in 2019, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Seoul High Court for a retrial, saying that it had underestim­ated the amount of bribes Lee had paid. The Supreme Court said the amount should be 8.6 billion won.

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