7 Dec, SEOUL- Chiefs of South Korean chaebols attending the parliamentary hearing for a scandal involving President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday denied allegations that their businesses made donations in return for receiving or anticipating business favors.
Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime confidante, is being charged with extorting tens of millions of U.S. dollars from scores of key conglomerates. President Park is identified by prosecutors as a criminal accomplice to Choi, becoming the first sitting South Korean leader to be investigated as a suspect.
Samsung Group, the country’s largest family-run conglomerate, is suspected of bribing Choi and making the biggest donation to the two culture and sports foundations actually controlled Choi in exchange for getting support from the national pension fund in last year’s controversial merger of two subsidiaries.
The merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries was extremely crucial to Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong in inheriting the group’s management control from his father Chairman Lee Kun-hee who has been hospitalized for two and a half years on heart attack.
During the hearing to interrogate nine conglomerate heads, Lee said the merger “has nothing to do with the transfer” of management control, noting that Samsung’s donation was not aimed to receive any favor or support.
In July 2015, President Park held an open meeting with major conglomerate heads and met separately one-by-one with some of the chiefs. Lee admitted that he had met privately with the president twice in July last year and in February this year.
The presidential office is alleged to have pressured the casting vote-wielding national pension fund into voting for the Samsung merger aimed at creating the group’s de-facto holding company.
At the time, the merger triggered opposition from foreign investors as it causes investment loss to shareholders of Samsung C&T, including the pension fund.
Samsung’s founding family has been criticized for controlling overall group subsidiaries with a handful of equities through the complicated web of cross-shareholdings.
Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, chiefs of the country’s top five conglomerates, were grilled over whether to have donated to the Choi-controlled foundations in exchange for anticipating licenses for lucrative duty-free shop businesses.
The duty-free store units of the two groups failed last November to regain the licenses, and the government plans to announce the list of additional operators later this month. The addition was criticized by some as unlawful business favors to Lotte and SK.
Lotte made additional donations to the K-Sports foundation in May, but the money was returned back right before prosecutors raided the group’s headquarters in early June for investigation into the group’s separate corruption scandal. Shin and Chey had separate face-to-face meetings with President Park earlier this year.
Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo was interrogated over whether the country’s largest automaker gave contracts to a public relations agency owned by Choi, who has been indicted on multiple counts including abuse of power and extortion.
Chung replied that he cannot remember what exactly happened because the size of the company is so big and he does not directly handle such contracts.
Five other conglomerate heads attended the parliamentary hearing, denying bribery allegations. Put in the attendance list were LG Group Chairman Koo Bon-moo, Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn, Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho and CJ Group Chairman Sohn Kyung-shik.
GS Group Chairman Huh Chang-soo participated in the capacity of the head of the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), local business lobby group. (Xinhua)