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Samsung chief Lee arrested as South Korean corruption probe deepens

by Reuters

Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was arrested on Friday over his alleged role in a corruption scandal rocking the highest levels of power in South Korea, dealing a fresh blow to the technology giant and standard-bearer for Asia's fourth-largest economy.

The special prosecutor's office accuses Lee of bribing a close friend of President Park Geun-hye to gain government favors related to leadership succession at the conglomerate. It said on Friday it will indict him on charges including bribery, embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury.

The 48-year-old Lee, scion of the country's richest family, was taken into custody at the Seoul Detention Centre early on Friday after waiting there overnight for the decision. He was being held in a single cell with a TV and desk, a jail official said.

Lee is a suspect in an influence-peddling scandal that led parliament to impeach Park in December, a decision that if upheld by the Constitutional Court would make her the country's first democratically elected leader forced from office.

Samsung and Lee have denied wrongdoing in the case.

Prosecutors have up to 10 days to indict Lee, Samsung's third-generation leader, although they can seek an extension. After indictment, a court would be required to make its first ruling within three months.

Prosecutors plan to question Lee again on Saturday.

No decision had been made on whether Lee's arrest would be contested or whether bail would be sought, a spokeswoman for Samsung Group [SARG.UL] said.

"We will do our best to ensure that the truth is revealed in future court proceedings," the Samsung Group said in a brief statement after Lee's arrest.

The same court had rejected a request last month to arrest Lee, but prosecutors this week brought additional accusations against him.

"We acknowledge the cause and necessity of the arrest," a judge said in his ruling.

The judge rejected the prosecution's request to also arrest Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) president Park Sang-jin.
Ratings agencies did not expect any impact on the flagship firm's credit ratings, and said Lee's arrest would accelerate improvements in management transparency and corporate governance.

While Lee's detention is not expected to hamper day-to-day operations at Samsung firms, which are run by professional managers, experts said it could hinder strategic decision-making at South Korea's biggest conglomerate, or chaebol.

Samsung is going through a restructuring to clear a succession path for Lee to assume control after his father was incapacitated by a heart attack in 2014.

Decisions that could be complicated by Lee's arrest include deliberations over whether to reorganize the group under a holding company structure, as well as its plan to abandon its future strategy office, a central decision-making body that came in for criticism during the scandal.

Staff moves have also been in limbo. Samsung, which employs around half a million people, has yet to announce annual personnel promotions and changes, which it typically does in December.

One employee at Samsung Electronics’ chip division said colleagues were unsettled that prosecutors had singled out Samsung. "The mood is that people are worried," the person said.

However, another Samsung Electronics employee described the situation as business as usual. "It wouldn't make sense for a company of that size to not function properly just because the owner is away."

Both employees declined to be identified, given the sensitivity of the matter.

Lee's incarceration comes as Samsung Electronics tries to get past last year's disastrous roll-out of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, which were prone to fires. It is under pressure for the upcoming launch of its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S8, to be a success.


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