(ATTN: ADDS new info in paras 9-11, 20-21)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- Special prosecutors on Monday requested an arrest warrant for Lee Jae-yong, Samsung Group's de facto leader, on charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury in connection with an influence-peddling scandal that led to President Park Geun-hye's impeachment.
Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., is accused of giving or promising to give some 43 billion won (US$36.3 million) worth of bribes to Park's jailed friend Choi Soon-sil in return for the state-run pension fund's backing of a merger of two Samsung affiliates, the team's spokesman Lee Kyu-chul told a regular press briefing.
Samsung signed a 22 billion won consulting contract in August 2015 with a Germany-based firm owned by the woman who is at the center of the scandal and allegedly sent the company billions of won, which was used to fund her daughter's equestrian training, according to prosecutors. The money that was originally promised to be handed over was included in the amount deemed as bribes, Lee, the spokesman, said.
Some 20.4 billion won the group donated to two nonprofit foundations, allegedly linked to Choi, was also viewed as a kickback. It was the largest amount given by any business group to the organizations.
Prosecutors suspect Samsung supported Choi in return for the National Pension Service (NPS) approving the contested merger of two Samsung subsidiaries on July 17, 2015.
The Samsung scion has denied most of the allegations raised during a parliamentary hearing held last month. Investigators have accused him of perjury.
"In seeking the warrant, the investigation team concluded that establishing justice was more important than the possible impact it (the arrest) could have on the national economy," the spokesman said.
The decision came a few days after Lee was grilled by investigators for about 22 hours from Thursday to early Friday.
Later in the day, Samsung reiterated its denial of the allegations leveled against Lee.
"It is difficult to agree with the special prosecutor's decision, because Samsung did not make contributions in order to receive favors," the company said in a statement.
"We believe the court will make the appropriate judgment on this matter."
The Seoul Central District Court will hold a hearing on Wednesday to review the legality of detaining the Samsung business chief.
The probe team decided to carry out their investigation on three other senior Samsung executives, including a vice chairman Choi Gee-sung, without detention.
Moon Hyung-pyo, chief of the NPS and former health minister, was indicted on the same day on charges of abuse of power, becoming the first suspect to be indicted by the investigation team.
Moon, who served as the health minister from December 2013 to August 2015, is suspected of pressuring the pension fund while he was the minister in 2015. He was formally arrested last month.
The spokesman earlier said Moon has admitted to the allegations during the interrogation, reversing his statements made during a parliamentary hearing. He was also charged with perjury.
Investigators are looking into whether President Park was involved in the process which they deem a bribery case. Park met with Lee Jae-yong privately on July 25, 2015.
The business group has admitted to making contributions to the two foundations and Choi's firm, but denied such contributions were related to the merger.
Lee became a board member of Samsung Electronics last October, and his father, Lee Kun-hee, has been hospitalized since suffering a heart attack in 2014.
During its regular briefing on the day, special prosecutors portrayed the relationship between Park and Choi as one that "shares economic and substantive interests." The team pointed out that through its probe, it collected "considerable proof" pointing towards such a special relationship.
Park's attorneys immediately dismissed the definition and arguments made by the prosecutors as being "groundless."
Meanwhile, the probe team said it will question Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun and Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, on Tuesday over allegations that the Park administration blacklisted certain cultural figures.
Cho and Kim are suspected of their involvement in the alleged creation and management of a blacklist intended to block artists critical of the government from receiving state support.
Also on Monday, the Constitutional Court held its fifth hearing of Park's impeachment trial where Choi appeared and denied any wrongdoing in her interactions with the president.
The Constitutional Court, the investigation team and a district court have all accelerated their proceedings to draw a swift resolution to the case. Millions of people have staged candlelight vigils for the past 12 weekends, demanding Park's prompt ouster.
The top court has until early June to decide whether to uphold or reject the impeachment motion, which passed the parliament on Dec. 9.
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