Samsung’s CEO Doesn’t Have to Go Back to Prison, Court Rules

Samsung Electronics executive chairman Lee Jae-yong will not have to put his prison uniform back on—for now, at least.

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The Seoul Central District Court on Monday found Lee not guilty of committing stock manipulation and accounting fraud during a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates: Samsung C&T, a construction company, and Cheil, an amusement park and clothing company. Lee is the son of former Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. He’s been leading the Samsung group since his father suffered a heart attack in 2014. Kun-hee passed away in 2020.

According to the Associated Press, prosecutors argued that Lee and other Samsung executives manipulated assets so that the merger would be favorable to Cheil — where Lee happened to be the biggest shareholder — and harmed shareholders of Samsung C&T.

Prosecutors were seeking a prison term of five years for the Samsung chief and also pointed out that the merger gave Lee more control over Samsung Electronics as a whole. Lee has maintained his innocence and stated the merger helped make the multinational company more stable.

The court appeared to agree with Lee’s argument. Seoul Central District Court Chief Judge Park Jung-jae said there was not enough evidence that Lee aimed to cause losses at Samsung C&T, CNN reported.

“Even if Lee’s control has been strengthened, the merger in this case cannot be considered unfair, as long as there is a reasonable purpose for the merger,” Park said.

It was unclear on Monday whether prosecutors would appeal the court’s ruling.

Lee’s acquittal is the newest chapter in the drama related to the controversial 2015 merger. In 2017, he was found guilty of bribing former South Korean president Park Geun-hye and her confidant with roughly $6.4 million to secure the government’s support for the merger. The scandal led to months of protests and outrage from South Koreans and the impeachment of Park.

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In that case, Lee was sentenced to five years in prison but was released after less than a year and forced to face a retrial. The 2021 retrial of the bribery case found him guilty, sentenced him to two and a half years in prison, and released him on parole later that year. In 2022, President Yoon Suk Yeol pardoned him for the bribery charges.

Lee’s legal wrongdoings don’t appear to have affected him in the long run. He was appointed executive chairman of Samsung Electronics about a year after he was released from prison on a bribery conviction. With a net worth of $8 billion, he was also the second richest person in South Korea in 2023, according to Forbes.

Lee has claimed that he is very sorry for all the trouble he’s caused Samsung and its shareholders and wants to focus on increasing the company’s glory.

“In the future, I would like to ask for the opportunity to help Samsung become a truly top-notch company and to focus all my capabilities on moving forward,” Lee said in his trial last year.

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