Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong heads to court to attend a hearing at the Seoul High Court in Seocho-gu on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
An appellate court sentenced Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong to 2 1/2 years in prison Monday for bribery in a high-profile case involving former President Park Geun-hye, reopening a leadership vacuum at South Korea’s biggest tech giant.
In the final verdict, announced at around 2:20 p.m., judges at the Seoul High Court said, “Considering all circumstances, it is inevitable that Lee is sentenced to prison and arrested in court.”
Choi Ji-sung and Jang Choong-ki, two other Samsung executives tried along with Lee, received the same sentence.
The court said, “It is clear that the defendant’s sincerity and efforts to enhance the effectiveness of the compliance monitoring system should be evaluated positively.”
However, the judges said, “It is hard to say that Samsung’s compliance committee has met its effectiveness. It is not enough to engage in creative surveillance of new types of (corruption) that will occur in the future.”
When the court asked Lee if he had any response to the verdict, Lee said, “I have nothing special to say.”
Samsung may again take the case to the Supreme Court. But considering that the Supreme Court has already ruled on the case once before, it is likely that the latest ruling would be upheld.
Following the verdict, the special prosecutor released a statement saying the bribery case related to former President Park and her confidant Choi Seo-won -- commonly known by the name Choi Soon-sil -- was concluded.
“It is hoped that the Supreme Court’s pending case of abuse of authority and breach of trust, which is related to the approval of the merger of the National Pension Service, will be promptly sentenced according to the purpose of the special prosecution,” the statement said.
The case dates to February 2017, when special prosecutor Park Young-soo indicted Lee on charges of paying about 30 billion won ($27.6 million) to Park and Choi in return for their support in enabling Lee to succeed his father at the helm of the group.
Later that year, Lee was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but he returned to his post at Samsung in 2018 after an appeals court reduced his sentence to 2 1/2 years, suspended for four years. But in August last year the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Seoul High Court, saying Lee’s sentence was too lenient and should have reflected an additional 5 billion won in bribes paid to Park and Choi.
The Seoul High Court, which took over the case, began Lee’s retrial in October 2019 and suggested Samsung create an internal compliance committee, saying this would be taken into account at sentencing. The special prosecutors immediately objected to the idea and asked the Supreme Court to reassign the case to new judges, labeling the original judges “biased.” But the Supreme Court denied the request, and the retrial resumed in October last year.
At a final retrial on Dec. 30, prosecutors demanded a nine-year prison term for Lee, saying, “For the sound development of our society, Samsung’s position is to show a firm attitude in corruption and set an example.”
Lee also apologized, saying he would never engage in any activity that could cause misunderstanding.
One of the biggest issues at the latest retrial was Samsung’s self-created compliance committee.
After the court suggested in 2019 that Samsung establish a compliance committee, Samsung immediately did so and held a rare press conference declaring that Lee’s children would not succeed him in controlling the group.
It also said it was suspending its anti-union policy.
Ahead of Monday’s verdict, a series of local business associations, including the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Korea Federation of SMEs and the Korea Venture Business Association, submitted petitions to the Seoul High Court calling for leniency for Lee.
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org