South Korean Prosecutors Seek Arrest of Samsung Vice Chair

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Seoul, South Korea's capital

Jay Y. Lee is accused of bribery, entangling the world's largest smartphone maker in the Asian country's snowballing corruption scandal.

South Korean prosecutors requested an arrest warrant Monday for Jay Y. Lee, aka Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, entangling the country's largest business group in a widening influence-peddling scandal.

A local court must approve the arrest warrant, and a Seoul court is scheduled to convene Wednesday. An arrest warrant would see Lee detained and allow prosecutors to continue their investigation, followed by possible formal charges and an indictment.

Lee was questioned by an independent counsel team as a bribery suspect Thursday. The arrest warrant, accusing the 48-year-old of bribery, embezzlement and perjury, is the latest in a snowballing corruption case that has shaken up the Asian country and led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.

A total 53 corporations have been found to have donated millions of dollars to the two foundations and a Germany-based firm run by the woman at the center of the scandal, Park's shamed and jailed friend Choi Soon-sil. Samsung is the biggest contributor, with alleged bribes amounting to an estimated $36 million (43 billion Korean won), according to specially appointed prosecutors.

All companies involved have claimed government pressure, and Samsung is the only one to be charged by local authorities. The electronics giant is alleged to have provided financial support in return for political favors, most notably for the state-run pension fund's backing of a merger between two Samsung affiliates.

Samsung has admitted to making donations but denies they were related to the merger. Moon Hyung-pyo, chief of the National Pension Service and former health minister, was arrested last month over his alleged involvement in the deal. Investigators are also looking into Park's role as Park and Lee met privately in July 2015.

"We have enough evidence to support that president Park and Choi Soon-sil were co-conspirators sharing profits" in the bribery scandal, said a representative for the prosecutors during a news briefing Monday.

Observers believe this latest development involving Samsung could further corner the disgraced president. In December, the country's National Assembly voted to impeach Park, who is awaiting a final decision from the Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of Lee's arrest has also been noted by the media and financial experts, as the world's largest maker of smartphones accounts for nearly a third of South Korea's stock-market value. A spokesperson for the special prosecutor's office said Monday that, while they were wary of economic factors, "it is more important to seek justice."

Samsung condemned the decision. "Samsung did not make contributions in order to receive favors," the company said.

The South Korean government has traditionally been lenient toward its powerful, family-controlled "chaebol" conglomerates. The arrest warrant, if issued, would be a first for Samsung. Lee's father, Lee Kun-hee, has been convicted of bribery, tax evasion and breach of trust, but was never arrested and his prison terms were suspended. The senior Lee's criminal record was also later erased in presidential pardons. Lee Kun-hee has been hospitalized since suffering a heart attack in 2014, leaving his son as the company's de facto leader.