Samsung chairman Jay Y. Lee’s legal troubles may be in the rearview mirror as a Korean court acquitted him of stock manipulation and accounting fraud charges over a 2015 merger, The Financial Times has reported. The ruling allows Lee to continue leading Samsung, which saw a sharp decline in revenue last year.
Seeking a five year jail term, prosecutors accused Lee of manipulating the share price of two Samsung subsidiaries to smooth the way for a merger that allowed him to consolidate his power. However, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove that. “It is hard to say that Lee Jae-yong [aka Jay Y. Lee] . . . spearheaded the merger, and that the merger was done just for the sake of Lee’s succession,” the judge stated in the ruling.
The verdict will allow Lee and Samsung to focus on its declining smartphone and memory chip businesses. Samsung recently lost its smartphone sales crown to Apple, and is now behind SK Hynix in the new and hot market of high-bandwidth memory (HBM) used by NVIDIA and others to create artificial intelligence (AI) models.
The decision was heralded by business groups including the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, but not everyone in the country agreed. “The ruling will free Lee of legal risks, but I am at a loss for words in terms of the country’s economic justice,” Park Ju-geun, head of corporate thinktank Leaders Index, told the FT. “This goes totally against all previous court rulings on the merger.”
Lee was originally sentenced to five years in prison in 2017 after being found guilty of bribing public officials over the same merger. He walked free after a year in detention, but the South Korean Supreme Court overturned that decision and ordered the case to be retried.
While Lee was sentenced with two-and-a-half years of prison time in early 2021 in that retrial, he was paroled half a year later in a development that civic groups had described as another example of the justice system being lenient towards the country’s elite. (Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye also went to jail for her role in the same affair.)
In 2022, Lee was given a pardon by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, ostensibly so he could help the country overcome its economic crisis. Ironically, Yoon is the country’s former chief prosecutor and oversaw the original convictions of Lee and Park.