A South Korean court sentenced the billionaire chief of Samsung to five years in prison for crimes that helped topple the country’s president, a stunning downfall that could freeze up decision making at a global electronics powerhouse long run like a monarchy.
The Seoul Central District Court said Friday that Lee Jae-yong, 49, was guilty of offering bribes to Park Geun-hye when she was South Korea’s president, and to Park’s close friend, to get government support for efforts to cement his control over the Samsung empire. The revelations that led to Lee’s arrest in February fed public outrage which contributed to Park’s removal.
A panel of three judges also found Lee guilty of embezzling Samsung funds, hiding assets overseas, concealing profit from criminal acts and perjury. Prosecutors had sought a 12-year prison term.
The court said Lee and Samsung executives who advised him caused “a big negative effect” to South Korean society and its economy.
“The essence of the case is unethical collusion between political power and capital,” the court said in a statement. It led the public to fundamentally question the public nature of the president’s work and to have “mistrust in the morality of the Samsung group,” it said.
The families who control South Korea’s big conglomerates, known as chaebol, were lionized a generation ago for helping to turn South Korea into a manufacturing powerhouse put public tolerance for double standards that put them above the law has been rapidly diminishing.
Analysts said the verdict will not immediately have an impact on Samsung’s business operations, which are overseen by three chief executives. The company has successfully weathered past crises that include two recalls of Galaxy Note 7 smartphones prone to catch fire and Lee’s arrest. It is set to report its highest-ever earnings this year.
But long-term business decisions, such as finding future growth areas and identifying companies for acquisitions, may have to be put on hold.