Samsung Chief Arrested on Bribery Charges in Corruption Scandal

Lee Jae-yong (center), vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, arrives Monday for questioning as a suspect in the corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye.

The case relates to an ever-widening political scandal revolving around President Park Geun-hye and her secret confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of profiting off her relationship with the president.

Seoul Central District Court's decision is likely to shock the business world. The daily operational role of Lee, who is vice chairman at Samsung Electronics, isn't clearly defined anyway, and the three key divisions of Samsung Electronics, the $260 billion flagship unit, are run by a trio of veterans sharing the chief executive title.

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The arrest, if it causes Lee to remain absent from Samsung, could potentially upset business operations.

The special prosecutor's office accuses Lee of bribing a close friend of the president to gain government favors related to leadership succession at the conglomerate. According to Bloomberg, it may take up to 18 months for a trial and verdict.

After the prosecutor's first attempt to arrest Lee was rejected by a court on 19 January due to lack of evidence, the billionaire heir was called in again for 15 hours of questioning on Monday as investigators sought more information. Choi Gee-sung, a high profile lieutenant and Lee mentor, might take up some slack, but probably not all of it. The scandal has rocked South Korea with millions of people taking to the streets in protest.

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Prosecutors added charges of hiding criminal proceeds and violating the law on transferring assets overseas to their initial charges against Lee of bribery, embezzlement and perjury.

At a parliamentary hearing in December, Lee denied being involved in any bribery scheme but admitted that Samsung had given a US$900,000 (NZ$1.2m) horse to Choi's daughter, an Olympic equestrian hopeful. The animal given to Chung Yoo-ra is estimated to be worth around 800,000 euros.

"The 48-year-old Lee is accused of funneling some $37 million in company funds to a confidant of the president's, in order to ensure government support for a controversial merger".

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President Park remains in office, but has been stripped of her powers while the investigation is underway. This stake made Lee the largest shareholder in Samsung C&T, while Samsung C&T is in turn a large shareholder in Samsung Electronics. The same court had previously rejected a request from prosecutors last month to arrest Lee.