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Park rebuked me for not helping equestrian body: Lee

Lee Jae-yong, Samsung Group’s heir apparent on trial over an alleged money-for-political favors deal with former President Park Geun-hye, said Thursday that he was scolded by Park for not offering enough support for equestrian sports during a one-on-one meeting in 2015.

During his trial at a Seoul court Thursday, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee denied the bribery charges, saying he had never expected or asked for favors from the Park administration in return for donations to foundations controlled by Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil, or sports sponsorship to Choi’s horse-riding daughter. 

Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)

He said he was in no position to ask for any political favors from Park, as the former leader kept rebuking him on matters like the Korea Equestrian Federation or a local TV network that his uncle owns. He said he was “irritated” by Park’s behavior, because he thought it was not even “a big deal.”

“I have been scolded often by my father and Chairman Lee Kun-hee. But I have never been scolded by anyone else. I don’t know whether it is appropriate to say, but it was my first time that I had been reproached by a woman,” Lee recalled while testifying at the Seoul Central District Court.

Asked why he then told Samsung Group’s Park Sang-jin, a Samsung Electronics president who served as the head of the Korea Equestrian Federation to “handle” it, he said, “I could not completely ignore the president.”

The de facto chief of Samsung Group, who is on trial for bribery, embezzlement and perjury, revealed more details of what had been discussed during his one-on-one meetings with Park to refute the prosecution’s accusation.

The prosecution charged Lee Jae-yong with paying or promising to pay 43.3 billion won in donations to foundations controlled by Cho, and in sponsorship of the equestrian body. Much of the sponsorship was used for Choi’s daughter and dressage player Chung Yoo-ra, the prosecution said.

While Samsung Group claimed that it had been forced to offer the donations out of fear of Park and Choi, and had no favors to ask in return, the prosecution sees the money as a bribe to win the government’s backing for a merger of its two affiliates -- Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T.

The prosecution argued that Samsung Group needed the state-funded National Pension Service, the largest stakeholder of Samsung C&T, to be in favor of the 2015 merger, a crucial step for a smooth power transfer from its ailing Chairman Lee Kun-hee to his only son, Lee Jae-yong.

Asked whether he expected any help from the government in return for meeting Park’s demands, the junior Lee simply said, “No.”

“It was not at all a situation” in which I could have brought up issues facing Samsung Group, he said of the meetings with Park on three occasions.

According to Lee Jae-yong’s testimony, in the second meeting that took place in July 2015, Park scolded Lee, requesting more support for the equestrian body. The third meeting, which happened in February, was dominated by Park furiously criticizing news coverage critical of the Park administration by a cable-TV JTBC. Lee said Park asked him to stop Hong Seok-hyun, former head of JTBC and Lee’s uncle, from doing so.

There were no mentions of specific names of Choi, Chung or any of the foundations controlled by Choi or her niece Chang Si-ho by Park during their meetings, he said. He did not even know of their existence and only found out that the sponsorship was mainly for Chung after the corruption scandal surfaced, he said.

“I think I heard Park saying something about supporting sports and cultural prosperity, but I have no memory of her speaking about donations to foundations,” he said.

Lee denied his part in the top conglomerate’s controversial decisions ranging from the merger to dubious donations, shifting responsibility to Choi Gee-sung, head of the now-defunct future strategy office, the group’s powerful organ in charge of key personnel appointments and general management.

“From the beginning, I belonged to Samsung Electronics. I have never been part of the future strategy office. Some 95 percent of my work was related to Samsung Electronics and the group’s other affiliates,” Lee said during the trial Wednesday.

Choi Gee-sung admitted that he had been the final decision maker for Samsung Group, saying Samsung Group’s heir apparent had no idea about any wrongdoings.

Samsung Group’s former and current officials, who are on trial on charges of bribery along with their de facto chief Lee, all claimed innocence and denied Lee’s part in an apparent attempt to save their boss from the fiasco.

The special counsel and Lee’s lawyers will make final arguments over key points in the courtroom Thursday and Friday. The prosecution is set to make a sentence demand for Lee and Samsung’s other officials during the final hearing Monday. The ruling is expected at the end of August.

It is not yet decided whether the verdict hearing will be televised. According to a recent change in court rules, it is now possible to broadcast live sentencing hearings deemed crucial for public interest.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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