Mr Lee was arrested on February 17 over his alleged role in the corruption scandal involving impeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye, dealing a fresh blow to the standard-bearer for Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
The special prosecutor’s office said yesterday, the last day of its investigation, that it had charged Mr Lee, third-generation leader of the tech giant ‘chaebol’ (a family-owned conglomerate), and four other executives with bribery and embezzlement.
The charges against him included pledging bribes to a company and organisations tied to Ms Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the centre of the scandal, to cement his control of the smartphones-to-biopharmaceuticals business empire.
“We apologise for the social controversy and distress we have caused,” Samsung executive vice president Lee June said.
The charges came ahead of a Constitutional Court ruling on whether to uphold parliament’s December impeachment of Ms Park. That impeachment was triggered by accusations she colluded with Ms Choi to press big businesses, including Samsung, to donate to two foundations set up to back Ms Park’s policy initiatives. The court’s ruling is expected this month.
Should it uphold the impeachment, Ms Park would become the country’s first democratically elected president to be thrown out of office. The special prosecutors did not disclose specifics of the charges against Mr Lee or other Samsung executives. Ms Park, Ms Choi, and Mr Lee have all denied wrongdoing. Based on the main charges levied against Mr Lee, he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
In December, Mr Lee promised to shut Samsung’s corporate strategy office, a key nerve centre responsible for major initiatives such as investment in new businesses, amid accusations by politicians it was a key organ for illicit lobbying efforts. Samsung said chief executives and boards of its various affiliates would set their own course going forward.