Second-gen Lee Jae-yong, the vice chairman and heir apparent of electronics conglomerate Samsung, is to be indicted on multiple charges including bribery and embezzlement, according to prosecutors.
Earlier this month, the 48-year-old was arrested for his alleged role in providing about ₩43 billion ($37 million) to a friend of South Korean president Park Geun-hye to win state approval for a controversial 2015 merger.
Lee’s arrest is the latest move in an attempt to clean up the incestuous links between the country's family-run conglomerates and government, and to quell rising public anger over the perception of corruption and favouritism—president Park was impeached late last year for allegedly indirectly accepting bribes.
"Special prosecutors today indicted Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong for bribery, embezzlement, hiding of assets overseas and perjury," said Lee Kyu-chul, spokesman for the investigating team, which helped put the case together. Lee and Samsung both denied any wrongdoing.
The indictment could have wide-ranging consequences for Samsung: for the first time in its eight-decade history, the largest company in the country will be left without a leader to make long-term plans and to plan strategy. More than 10 people are also facing indictment charges alongside Lee and a will face a potential life sentence if convicted.
Lee has operated as Samsung’s de factor leader since his 75-year-old father, Lee Kun-hee, had a heart attack in 2014—the next-gen has since navigated the discontinuation of its Galaxy Note range after flaws led to some handhelds bursting into flames, despite being integral to the success of its other handsets, and is known for his determination and polite demeanour.
The indictment will leave Samsung to be run by a slew of loyal deputies, who have served the family for decades with the intention of ensuring a successful father-to-son succession. Pundits expect decision-making will now be hindered.
South Korea’s chaebol crisis came to a head last year when president Park, who was nicknamed the ‘chaebol sniper’ for her anti corruption sentiment, became embroiled in a scandal involving Choi Soon-sil, a mysterious friend that was accused of extorting millions from the very establishments Park set out to tackle.
Samsung is suspected of providing tens of millions of dollars in money and favours to Park and her friend Choi Soon-sil in exchange for government support of a merger deal between two Samsung affiliates in 2015—the merger was designed to help Lee cement his control over the conglomerate.
The next-gen owns about 11% of Samsung’s financial service firm, Samsung SDS, and has three younger sisters: Lee Boo-jin, Lee Seo-hyun and Lee Yoon-hyung.
Third-generation Samsung was founded by Lee Byung-chul in 1938, and has made the Lee family one of the wealthiest in the world, with today’s family members worth a reported $12.6 billion (€9.3 billion).
Samsung Electronics had revenues of $170 billion in 2015.