[News analysis] Arrest warrant for Lee Jae-yong would have implications for Pres. Park

Posted on : 2017-02-14 16:23 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Special Prosecutor’s second arrest warrant request signals strong commitment to punishing Park on bribery charges
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong arrives at the offices of Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong arrives at the offices of Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo

The decision by Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo’s investigative team to summon Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, 49, for questioning for the second time in a month on Feb. 13 in connection with alleged bribery of President Park Geun-hye is part of a procedure to make another request for an arrest warrant against Lee around Feb. 15.

Historically, it is highly unusual for prosecutors to make a second arrest warrant request in an investigation of a chaebol head. The aggressive move by Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo‘s investigative team is seen as signaling that it has various additional pieces of evidence to prove a transactional nature to the alleged bribery - as well as plans to establish a stronger case against Park Geun-hye for bribe acceptance.

According to sources with the team, the initial arrest warrant request against Lee on Jan. 16 only listed charges of requesting “National Pension Service approval of the Samsung C&T/Cheil Industries merger” in exchange for financial benefits to Choi Sun-sil, 61, who is currently under detention in connection with the government interference scandal. While it is impossible to confirm what Park and Lee talked about in their one-on-one meeting, the team decided the circumstantial evidence was strong enough to show an implicit request around the time of the merger.

Samsung countered that there was no quid pro quo arrangement because the support to Choi came after Samsung’s merger, and that there is no evidence of Lee directly requesting anything from Park. The court reviewing the initial warrant request sided with Lee, concluding that the evidence of a transactional relationship was not strong enough to warrant detention.

After the request was rejected last month, the team immediately made plans to submit a second. It had initially planned to make another arrest warrant request against Lee early this month, but postponed it after additional investigation turned up various pieces of circumstantial evidence showing a quid pro quo arrangement between Park and Lee.

In particular, the team focused its investigation on the process of removing new circular shareholding links and introducing an intermediate financial holding company, which emerged as major issues in the Samsung Group as it completed Lee‘s succession to the management helm in the merger’s wake. The reason had to do with Lee‘s resolution of the two issues coinciding with the period from Aug. 2015 to Oct. 2016 when Samsung provided equestrian training support to Choi’s daughter Jung Yu-ra, 21. It was a matter of expanding the scope of circumstantial evidence documenting the quid pro quo character of Lee’s financial benefits to Choi to include all areas of the management authority succession effort. The team has also reportedly acquired several pieces of direct and indirect evidence that Lee’s side asked Park for preferential treatment from the Fair Trade Commission and Financial Supervisory Commission, while lobbying the two institutions in various ways - as documented in a “pressure journal” discovered on the computer of one FTC official.

The team also determined that Lee pledged to continue providing Choi with financial support through false contracts even after allegations of her interference in government operations broke in the media in September and October of last year. The team plans to list the additional circumstantial evidence in its new arrest warrant for Lee.

Analysts said the team’s decision to make a renewed request for Lee despite the risk of a court once again rejecting it also showed political calculations. Unless granted an extension by Prime Minister and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn, the Special Prosecutor’s investigative team must finish its investigation by Feb. 28. If it completes its investigation before the Constitutional Court makes a ruling in Park’s impeachment trial, the team will have to hand the case over to prosecutors without indicting Park. Given the hesitance of the Special Prosecutor’s investigative team to make a decision on the bribery charges, there is no guarantee the Prosecutors would proceed with a bribery indictment against Park. But if a court does issue an arrest warrant against Lee after the team’s second request, the bribery case against Park would grow strong enough that Prosecutors would have to proceed with the indictment against her. In other words, the Special Prosecutor’s renewed arrest warrant request against Lee is a sign of its strong commitment to punishing Park on bribery charges.

By Kim Jeong-pil, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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