SEOUL – Prosecutors questioned Samsung Electronics Co.’s vice chairman and heir apparent for about 22 hours in an influence-peddling probe that has reached the highest levels of government and business in South Korea.
Jay Y. Lee was released early Friday morning after appearing at the special prosecutor’s offices in central Seoul on Thursday. Investigators have said Lee, 48, is a suspect in their bribery investigation and that the charges may widen to include allegations of embezzlement and breach of duty. The scion of South Korea’s richest family has denied any wrongdoing; Samsung declined further comment.
“Lee returned home at around 7:30 a.m. this morning,” said Lee Kyu-chul, a spokesman for the special prosecutor, in a telephone call later Friday morning. “He has denied most of the allegations. Whether the prosecution will request an arrest warrant or not will be decided likely today or tomorrow.”
The influence-peddling scandal has gripped South Korea for months with millions taking to the streets to demand the ouster of President Park Geun-hye. Authorities are looking into whether Samsung and other “chaebol” business groups made payments to entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a Park confidant, in exchange for political favors. In recent weeks, the investigation has homed in on Samsung and payments the company made to foundations controlled by Choi.
When Lee appeared for questioning Thursday morning, he was surrounded by reporters, cameras and activists. “I apologize to the Korean people that we couldn’t show better behavior in this case,” he said.
Prosecutors also questioned Samsung Electronics President Park Sang-jin on Thursday, prosecutors said in a text message overnight. Park was president of the Korea Equestrian Federation, one entity allegedly involved in the Choi payments.
Special prosecutors are planning to widen the probe to other Korean companies.
In November, prosecutors searched the headquarters of Lotte Group and SK Group, seeking evidence of whether they donated money to foundations controlled by Choi in return for duty-free business licenses. The chairmen of SK and Lotte denied any wrongdoings at the parliamentary hearing.
“The special prosecutor has plans to widen the probe into other companies like SK and Lotte, but the schedules are not set yet,” said the spokesman Lee. “The allegations are likely to be bribery.” Representatives of SK Group and Lotte Group declined to comment.
Affiliates of SK and Lotte lost their duty-free licenses in Seoul in November 2015. A few months later, the Korea Customs Service announced a plan to hand out four additional licenses for duty-free stores. Both companies applied for the licenses in October, though only Lotte has received one.