Prosecutors’ yearslong intensive probe into Samsung Group took a fresh twist after a panel of outside experts advised them not to indict the group’s de facto leader Lee Jae-yong and drop the investigation on alleged corporate fraud surrounding the 2015 merger between two key affiliates.
In a deliberation session held Friday, the 14-member committee, which was set up to check the prosecution’s possible abuse of power to indict as a part of reform measures, voted in favor of Lee, citing that it was hard to substantiate some of the prosecution’s claims against him, including an alleged violation of capital market laws.
Now, the prosecution is trapped in a dilemma.
Ignoring the committee’s recommendation and pushing ahead with Lee’s arrest would invited criticism that it forces excessive investigations and does not show due respect the external review system. Accepting the decision would be denial of the legitimacy of its sprawled probe that involved myriad summons of Samsung’s former and incumbent executives.
The panel gave its recommendation not to indict Lee following an eight-hour discussion among outside experts, including a law professor, accountant and journalist, based on written opinions totaling 50 pages submitted by Samsung Group and the prosecutors. As the investigation into the group prolongs, lawyers of Lee had requested the prosecution to convene the committee to decide on the validity of the criminal probe.
This was an another setback for the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office that documented a 200,000-page investigative report that consists of witness testimonies and data secured through raids during a 20-month probe to prove Lee’s wrongdoings.
Earlier this month, its request to arrest Lee and two other former executives under suspicion of being deeply involved in the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries was rejected by the Seoul Central District Court.
Prosecutors believe that the tie-up and suspicious financial procedures such as market manipulation yielded results that aided the heir apparent’s succession plans to consolidate his grip on Samsung Electronics.
The prosecution is not obligated to follow the committee’s decision as it does not carry the force of law. But all conclusions made by the committee have been accommodated so far.
“We plan to determine the future course of legal action based on the investigation’s results and the committee’s recommendation,” the prosecutions’ office said.
Lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and civic groups criticized the committee’s decision for enabling conglomerates to evade their fraud.
“I was bewildered by the committee’s recommendation not to arrest Lee on a crime case that has been probed by the prosecution and the Securities and Futures Commission (under the Financial Services Commission),” Rep. Park Yong-jin wrote on his Facebook page.
Rep. Noh Woong-rae said that the panel of outside experts was set up to protect the weak, not to save “a large conglomerate like Samsung, not to mention the chief himself.”
On Sunday, Solidarity for Economic Reform expressed concerns that other companies may follow suit to decriminalize their misconduct.
“It is hard to make a conclusion on the Samsung case based on a half-day discussion as it is complex and difficult to understand. … We should actively seek ways to improve the credibility of the committee,” the group said in a statement.