South Korea court reassigns Samsung chief's case amid questions about judge's connections

By Se Young Lee and Joyce Lee
Samsung Group chief, Jay Y. Lee arrives at the office of the independent counsel team in Seoul, South Korea, February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files

By Se Young Lee and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean court said on Friday it has reassigned Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee's bribery trial to another judge, following questions about the previous judge's connection to a woman Lee is accused of bribing.

A Seoul Central District Court spokesman said the case had been reassigned following a request from judge Lee Young-hoon, who presided over the March 9 pre-trial hearing for Jay Lee and four former and current Samsung Group executives in what has been dubbed by some as the "trial of the century".

The spokesman declined to comment on the reason for the reassignment.

But the decision comes a day after an opposition lawmaker accused Lee Young-hoon's father-in-law of being a financial sponsor for Choi Soon-sil, a confidant of former president Park Geun-hye and a central figure in the graft scandal that led to Park's removal from office and the Samsung chief's indictment.

Park was dismissed as president by the Constitutional Court on Friday last week and has been summoned by prosecution for questioning as a suspect in the graft investigation.

The special prosecution team that indicted the Samsung chief accused Park of colluding with Choi to pressure big businesses to contribute to non-profit foundations backing her administration's initiatives.

The court said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday that Lee Young-hoon's father-in-law had denied the allegations and had not met or contacted Choi or her family since the assassination of Park's father, former president Park Chung-hee, in 1979.

Legal representatives for Jay Y. Lee, vice chairman and director at Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, could not be immediately reached for comment, and Samsung Electronics declined to comment.

Jay Y. Lee was indicted on Feb. 28 by a special prosecution team on several charges including pledging 43 billion won ($38.03 million) in bribes to a company and foundations backed by Choi to curry favor, and a verdict is required within three months of the indictment.

Jay Y. Lee and Samsung have denied wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Se Young Lee and Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)