FT: South Korea Approves Samsung Probe

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's National Assembly passed a bill Friday demanding an independent investigation into allegations of bribery at the Samsung Group conglomerate.

The bill was to go to President Roh Moo-hyun for final approval. His office has said he may veto it because state prosecutors have already launched a probe into the scandal at the country's largest industrial group, which includes Samsung Electronics Co.

The single-chamber legislature, however, can override a veto if a majority of its 299 members attend a floor vote and two-thirds of them vote in favor.

A total of 155 lawmakers voted for the bill Friday, 17 cast ballots against it and 17 abstained. A total of 110 lawmakers were absent and did not vote.

The legislation calls for Roh to name an independent counsel to delve into allegations against Samsung, including that it operated slush funds to bribe influential figures such as prosecutors, judges and government officials.

Other accusations include claims Samsung manipulated evidence and witnesses in a court case over a purported deal that critics say was aimed at transferring corporate control of Samsung from the group's chairman, Lee Kun-hee, to his only son.

The lawmakers have cast doubt on whether state prosecutors could effectively carry out a probe given that some were among those accused of accepting bribes, saying in the bill that a probe by those investigators "cannot earn the people's confidence."

The allegations cited by the legislation are based on the claims of a former top Samsung legal affairs official, who this month went public to reveal the alleged wrongdoing.

Kim Yong-chul, himself a former prosecutor, said he was responsible for bribing those in the legal field and claimed that Lim Chai-jin — the nation's new top prosecutor — was among those who took payments. Lim has denied the allegation.

Two civic groups subsequently filed a criminal lawsuit against Samsung, prompting state prosecutors to open a probe.

On Thursday, Samsung, which has vociferously denied the allegations, expressed regret over the lawmakers' impending action, but said it would cooperate with an independent probe. On Friday, the business group said it stood by that comment.

The bill's passage — the seventh time a special prosecutor has been approved by the National Assembly — came after lawmakers reached a deal to combine two separate proposals into a single bill.

A coalition of liberal lawmakers, many aligned with Roh, agreed to a proposal by conservatives to also investigate their claims that Roh received Samsung money before and after the 2002 election.

The legislation does not cite Roh by name but states that those in "the highest political echelon" allegedly received illicit funds from Samsung during and after the 2002 presidential race.

"We have already said we can consider the veto rights and that is still effective," Cheon Ho-seon, Roh's spokesman, told reporters. But he added a final decision would be made after receiving the bill.

The legislation calls for Roh to appoint an independent counsel out of three candidates recommended by the Korean Bar Association. The special prosecutor, aided by 33 assistant investigators, can investigate for up to 105 days.

Huge South Korean industrial groups such as Samsung are not new to scandals. The conglomerates have regularly been accused of wielding influence as well as dubious dealings between subsidiaries to help controlling families evade taxes and transfer wealth to heirs.

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