Samsung Group Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (Jay Y. Lee) had his prison sentence suspended on Monday and unexpectedly walked out free after a competent court reduced his five-year term for bribery in half and placed him on a four-year probation period, surprising some industry watchers. Mr. Lee spent nearly a full year in detention, with prosecutors originally demanding a 12-year prison sentence for Samsung’s scion who was accused of bribing former Korean President Park Geun-hye in order to enable a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates that gave him more corporate power at the chaebol at a direct expense of the National Pension Service, the largest pension fund in the Far Eastern country and a major shareholder of one of the two merged companies that’s estimated to have lost millions of dollars on the transaction yet approved it anyway.
NPS Chairman Moon Hyung-pyo was already sentenced to two and a half years in prison for his role in endorsing the consolidation, whereas a four-year term was given to Choi Gee-sung, former head of Samsung’s Future Strategy Office that’s said to have paid the original bribes and was dismantled in the aftermath of the scandal. The unit’s President Chang Choong-ki initially received an identical verdict but both he and Mr. Choi were now given suspended sentences. Mr. Lee and Samsung are yet to comment on the development in any capacity. While a direct replacement was never named, Samsung democratized its leadership in Mr. Lee’s absence and it’s presently unclear whether the grandson of the chaebol’s founder Lee Byung-chul is set to immediately return to the company in an official capacity.
Judge Cheong Hyung-sik of the Seoul High Court concluded Mr. Lee’s case shows no evidence of “power-business collusion,” adding that the multi-billionaire “passively answered to political power” and hence cannot be held accountable for corruption. Mr. Lee’s legal team never directly denied the possibility that Samsung’s Future Strategy Office paid bribes but insisted the 49-year-old had no knowledge of them. Some critics are already arguing the development confirms Samsung is above the law, dismissing the appeals court’s argument that there’s no evidence Mr. Lee requested political benefits or offered bribes, blaming former President Park for pressuring the firm into any such potential moves and calling for a higher level of public scrutiny over government officials in bribery cases. Ms. Park was impeached over the matter last year and is currently going through a separate trial, having already denied charges on all accounts, much like her confidante Choi Soon-sil. Samsung continued breaking performance records in Mr. Lee’s absence, having recorded $15 billion in profit over the final quarter of 2017 alone.