August 30, 2019 11:44
Samsung was reeling Thursday after the Supreme Court sent conglomerate chief Lee Jae-yong's bribery case back to a lower court and said all the money Samsung lavished on ex-President Park Geun-hye and her toxic confidante Choi Soon-sil constituted bribes.
The Supreme Court ruled that all the money Samsung gave the two women at Park's urging was a bribe to smooth Lee's ascendancy to the Samsung leadership.
Lee is the son of the nominal chief, Lee Kun-hee, who has been in a coma for years, but would not automatically have inherited the leadership unless Park had helped finagle a deal that gave Lee junior a controlling stake in the conglomerate's Byzantine cross-shareholdings.
Lee's retrial, which is expected to start in the next couple of months, could not come at a worse time for Korea's biggest conglomerate. Samsung accounts for as much as a quarter of Korea's GDP, and the saying goes that if it sneezes, the whole country catches cold.
Lee has been busy trying to battle a perfect storm caused by Japanese export curbs, plummeting semiconductor prices and global financial woes. But now he will have to devote much of his time and energy to his legal battle. There are even fears that he could be ousted, resulting in a management crisis.
Lee now faces embezzlement charges for an amount over W5 billion that carries a mandatory jail sentence because the top court ruled that the total bribes Lee paid Park and Choi from company coffers amounted to W8.9 billion (US$1=W1,214).
A lower court will decide the sentence again but will find its hands tied to a certain extent by the Supreme Court ruling. The high court can still whittle down Lee's sentence as much as possible by taking into account other circumstances like the impact on the economy.
Legal experts cited the precedent of Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was given a suspended sentence despite being convicted of paying Park W7 billion in bribes.
One veteran lawyer said Lee "will probably fight the charges to the end, so it could take more than a year for the case to be resolved."
Samsung in a statement Thursday expressed "extreme regret" for causing concern to the public and pleaded for "support" to overcome the crisis and contribute to the nation's economy. Samsung appears to think that it is the victim of politically motivated campaign by prosecutors and a public lynching.
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