Star-studded legal team will seek to save Samsung chief

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By Se Young Lee and Ju-min Park | SEOUL

SEOUL Samsung chief Jay Y. Lee has handpicked 13
top lawyers to defend him against charges of bribing the South
Korean president, nearly all of them former judges or
prosecutors, according to the court where one of the richest men
in the country will be tried.

Lee, 48, was indicted by a special prosecutor’s office on
Feb. 28 on charges of bribery and embezzlement over his alleged
role in the corruption scandal involving impeached President
Park Geun-hye. Four other Samsung executives have also been
charged, a massive blow for the world’s biggest maker of
smartphones and memory chips.

Described as the “trial of the century”, court proceedings begin on March 9, and if convicted, Lee could face more than 20
years in prison. A verdict has to be delivered within three
months.

Seoul Central District Court records showed that Lee has
assembled a team of 13 outside counsel for his defence, 10 of
whom work for Bae, Kim & Lee (BKL) – the country’s
second-largest law firm by headcount, and known for litigation
expertise.

The firm has defended other heads of South Korean
conglomerates, called chaebol, in high-profile criminal cases
including SK Group chief Chey Tae-won and Hanwha Group boss Kim
Seung-youn.

Kim was given a suspended three-year sentence after being
indicted for embezzlement and breach of trust, while Chey was
sentenced to four years in jail in 2013 for misappropriating
company funds and served two years before receiving a
presidential pardon.

According to South Korean media, two of the defence lawyers were considered for the special prosecution team they will now
fight in court.

“In numbers we may be behind Samsung’s extravagant team of
lawyers but in terms of our ability and what we’ve achieved so
far, you don’t need to worry,” said a special prosecution
official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the
case.

The special prosecution team will be led by Yang Jae-sik, an
assistant counsel and a long-time prosecutor, the official said.

Yang worked on several high-profile criminal cases as a
prosecutor, including a 2006 probe into whether senior South
Korean government officials colluded with private equity fund
Lone Star Funds to allow the U.S. firm to acquire Korea Exchange
Bank at less than fair value. He was also part of a team that
investigated Park Jie-man, brother of the current president,
when he was arrested for drug use in 1996.

BKL declined to make its attorneys available for comment,
while the other three defence lawyers declined comment or were
not immediately available.

AWARD-WINNING

On its website, BKL says it was founded in 1980 and provides
legal services in diverse areas, including corporate law and
governance, litigation, international arbitration and tax, among
others.

According to Asian Legal Business (ALB), a part of Thomson
Reuters, the firm has 520 fee-earning lawyers on its books, the
second-highest of any South Korean law firm.

At the ALB Korea Law Awards last year, BKL was chosen as
Deal Firm of the Year, Litigation Firm of the Year and
Intellectual Property Law Firm of the Year.

Samsung Group declined to comment on the legal defence team,
but said it was formed by Lee personally.

Among the most experienced attorneys on the team is Moon
Kang-bae, a graduate of the elite Seoul National University Law
School who spent roughly a decade as a judge before joining BKL
in 2000. He and two other BKL lawyers on Lee’s defence team
helped secure the suspended sentence for the Hanwha chairman.

Moon was considered a potential assistant to current special
prosecutor Park Young-soo, according to South Korean media, and
was in the 2007-2008 special investigation team that
investigated then president-elect Lee Myung-bak’s involvement in
an embezzlement scandal. Lee was eventually cleared of
wrongdoing.

Another senior attorney on Lee’s team is Cho Gun-ho, head of
law firm HM Partners and a long-time prosecutor who served as a
senior aide to former President Kim Dae-jung along with Park,
the special prosecutor.

Lee, who has been held at the Seoul Detention Centre since
his Feb 17 arrest, is charged with bribing President Park
through her confidante Choi Soon-sil to curry favour and cement
family control of the Samsung Group with transactions such as a
controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung companies.

Park, Lee and Choi have all denied wrongdoing.

During a December parliament hearing, Lee said he was not
aware of the payments made by Samsung until the scandal emerged.

“Samsung has not paid bribes nor made improper requests
seeking favours,” Samsung Group said in a statement to Reuters,
noting the 2015 merger in question was approved by shareholders
prior to any donations that were paid out.

“We will do our best to ensure that the truth is revealed in
future court proceedings.”

After the trial in the Seoul district court, the case can be
appealed – in the Seoul High Court and the Supreme Court. They
must issue rulings on the appeals within two months each unless
there are special circumstances. (Additional reporting by Yun-hwan Chae)



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