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I didn’t make decisions, Samsung heir tells corruption trial

Lee Jae-Yong (C), Samsung Electronics vice chairman and the son of Samsung group chairman Lee Kun-Hee, arrives at the court for a hearing to review the issuing of his arrest warrant at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on February 16, 2017/AFP

SeoulSouth Korea, Aug 2 – The heir to the world’s top smartphone maker Samsung had no role in decision-making at the wider group, he told a court Wednesday in his trial for corruption over the scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president.  

It was the first time Lee Jae-Yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and the son of the Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-Hee, had been interrogated by prosecutors since the high-profile proceedings began in March.

The 49-year-old, under detention while the trial is underway, bowed slightly towards the three judges on the podium as he took the stand in Seoul, with his co-defendants, an army of lawyers, and a packed courtroom looking on.

Lee and four other executives are accused of bribing the powerful confidante of then-President Park Geun-Hye with millions of dollars to win presidential favours and ease a controversial 2015 merger deal.

At the time the group’s elite Future Strategy Office (FSO) dictated the vast company’s overall direction and major business decisions.

“I have never attended a single one” of the group’s elite Future Strategy Office (FSO) regular Wednesday weekly meetings, he said. “I have no idea what is being discussed.”

Samsung – the world’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker – is also South Korea’s largest business group with revenues equivalent to about a fifth of the country’s GDP.

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The takeover deal was seen as a key step in ensuring an untroubled power transfer to Lee from his father, who had suffered a heart attack in 2014 and remains incapacitated.

Lee said he was “directly and actively involved in the management decisions at Samsung Electronics”.

But despite his senior position and the absence of his father – which effectively left him at the helm of the group – Lee said his knowledge of other industries “was far more limited”.

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“So I rarely expressed my opinions on these areas and mostly listened to other executives,” he told the court. “Since the chairman became bedridden, I’ve tried to learn more.”

He “just followed the advice” of the Future Strategy Office over the merger, he added.

Not in charge 

Park was formally impeached and removed from power in March after public uproar over her questionable ties with confidante Choi Soon-Sil sparked mass nationwide protests for months.

Choi – daughter of a shady late religious figure who was Park’s mentor for decades – is currently on trial for using her presidential ties to force top South Korean firms including Samsung to “donate” nearly $70 million to non-profit foundations which she controlled.

Park is also detained and on trial on 18 charges including coercion, abuse of power and bribery for offering policy favours to tycoons who bribed Choi. She is also accused of letting Choi, who has no title or security clearance, handle a wide range of state affairs including senior nominations and even her daily wardrobe choices.

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The ousted head of state has denied all wrongdoing and blamed Choi for abusing their friendship.

Samsung, the single largest donor to Choi’s foundations, also separately gave her millions of euros to bankroll her daughter’s equestrian training in Germany.

Lee has denied all wrongdoing, arguing he was not aware of Choi’s existence until recently, and that Samsung was pressured to pay the money and did not seek any policy favours in return.

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Choi Gee-Sung, a former Samsung Electronics vice chairman and a co-defendant, took the blame in his testimony on Wednesday, saying Lee was not involved in daily business decisions made by other senior executives such as himself.

He was head of the FSO until he stepped down in February, and is accused of approving a payment of millions of euros to finance the confidante’s daughter.

“Lee could express his opinions as a major shareholder but we did not report to him or did not need to get his approval formally,” said Choi Gee-Sung.

Lee “was not in a position to meddle with the group’s affairs, and he himself always tried not to do so”, he said, adding he did not tell him about the confidante or her daughter.

Samsung shares have leaped in recent months, even while Lee and other the other defendants have been detained in custody, as profits have soared.

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