Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., was found guilty of having bribed Park Geun-hye when she was the president, and sentenced to five years in prison, a blow to the heir apparent of the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips.
A three-judge panel of Seoul Central District Court found Lee guilty of bribery, perjury and embezzlement on Friday. “The essence of this case is the corrupt alliance between government and big business,” Kim Jin-dong, the presiding judge of the three-judge panel, said. “The people’s disappointment seemed irreparable because the corrupt alliance between the president and the conglomerate existed not just in the past but in our present reality.”
The ruling casts doubt over Lee’s return to the conglomerate his grandfather founded almost 80 years ago and is now in a battle for smartphone supremacy with Apple Inc. Since his arrest in February, Samsung Electronics has bounced back from last year’s exploding Note 7 fiasco to release a new flagship and post record earnings with its shares also reaching an all-time high.
Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee, Lee’s father, was prosecuted for bribery in 1996 and tax evasion in 2008. He received suspended sentences in both cases and later presidential pardons. After Chairman Lee’s heart attack in May 2014, Lee took over leadership of the conglomerate.
The court also convicted Choi Gee-sung, former vice chairman of the Samsung Group – who once headed the powerful Future Strategy Office of the conglomerate – and Chang Choong-ki, a former president of that office. They were each sentenced to a four-year prison term.
Two other Samsung leaders were convicted but not jailed. Former Samsung Electronics President Park Sang-jin received a three-year suspended prison term. Former Samsung Electronics executive Hwang Sung-soo was sentenced to a suspended prison term of two years and six months.
The 49-year-old has been in detention since February and proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial and his lawyer said he would appeal the verdict. Prosecutors had sought 12 years in prison.
Lee, choking back tears at times, testified that he knew little about Samsung affiliates other than the electronics business, and that he wasn’t part of the approval or decision-making process. Song Wu-cheol, Lee’s lawyer, said they would appeal the ruling.
“We hope the ruling will serve as an opportunity to end the longstanding history of corrupt alliances between politicians and business, which has been an obstacle for our society’s advancement,” said Yoon Young-chan, senior presidential secretary for public relations at the Moon Jae-in Blue House.
Controlled by the Lee family through a web of cross-holdings, Samsung is South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, comprised of about 60 units selling life insurance, cargo ships and clothes. The empire has a market capitalization of about $395 billion.
Samsung shares have risen 30 percent this year, outperforming the benchmark Kospi. The index was little changed on Friday.
This verdict, which comes just days after Samsung launched its impressive new Galaxy Note 8 flagship phone, obviously throws Lee’s future at the company into question.