Jay Y. Lee, the heir to South Korea’s largest conglomerate, was sentenced on Monday to two-and-a-half years in prison. The vice chairman of Samsung Electronics had been convicted of bribery and was first jailed in 2017, but the terms of the sentence were reduced and suspended on appeal.
Lee, 52, was convicted in 2017 for bribing the confidante of former president Park Geun-hye in a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment and jailing of the country’s first female leader. Lee served a year in prison but was released after his original five-year term was cut in half on appeal and suspended. In 2019, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Seoul High Court for a retrial that resulted in the sentence announced on Monday.
Samsung is accused of having contributed about 30 billion won (about $28 million) in bribes to Park’s confidante in exchange for the government’s backing of a controversial merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015. Samsung won approval for the merger of affiliates Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T, which strengthened Lee’s control of the conglomerate.
The case served to highlight the cozy relationship between Korea’s chaebols and the government. Months of protests amid claims of corruption and influence-peddling in Park’s administration saw her become the country’s first sitting president to be removed from office.
The sentence will sideline Lee from running the world’s largest smartphone and memory chip maker at a critical time for the tech giant as it copes with the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitical tensions between the China and the U.S.
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Lee also faces further legal troubles from the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries. Lee and other Samsung executives were indicted on charges of violating capital market laws and the audit law as well as a breach of duty. Lee’s lawyers have denied the charges.
The charges stem from an investigation into the $8 billion merger, which was seen as a way for Lee to expand his control over Samsung while sacrificing the interests of minority shareholders.
Lee made a rare public apology in May for not upholding the law and ethical standards. He also said that he would not hand over management of Samsung to his children. Korea’s largest conglomerate was founded by Lee’s grandfather Lee Byung-chul and then led by his father, Lee Kun-hee.
Lee, who has a net worth of $9.4 billion, is fourth on Forbes’ list of the 50 richest people in Korea. Lee was named vice chairman in 2012 and has been the de facto leader of Samsung Electronics following the hospitalization of his father who suffered a heart attack in 2014. The family patriarch died in October, and his former position as Samsung’s chairman still has yet to filled.