SEOUL, South Korea – It's a rare moment of public reckoning for South Korea's most powerful business leaders and possibly the worst day for Samsung's billionaire heir, courtesy of the country's biggest political scandal in years.
Lee Jae-yong, 48-year-old vice chairman at Samsung Electronics and the only son of the ailing chairman, was shouted down and admonished by lawmakers for the most part of the 2 ½-hour parliamentary questioning on Tuesday morning. Lawmakers questioned him on wide-ranging issues from why Samsung sponsored the family of President Park Geun-hye's confidante to Samsung's treatment of sickened workers.
The hearing, which is expected to go on all day, was broadcast live on major TV channels.
Lee fielded questions for the first time in parliament as part of the unprecedented questioning of nine leaders from South Korea's biggest business groups about their possible roles in the scandal involving President Park and Choi Soon-sil, her shadowy confidante.
Lawmakers are looking into any links to prosecution claims that South Korean President Park Geun-hye allowed a corrupt confidante to pull government strings and extort companies.
Park's scandal has increased doubts over deep ties between politicians and the country's top family-controlled businesses, known as chaebol. The South Korean president faces allegations she played a role when big business groups donated funds for non-profit foundations under the control of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil.
Prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether some of the 53 businesses that donated funds received any favors in return.
Many protesters who have filled Seoul streets calling for Park's arrest have also vented anger toward the chaebol and their founding families, shouting they are accomplices in the scandal.
During the questioning, Samsung's Lee and other chaebol bosses denied that they donated the funds to the foundations in order to receive any favors from the government. Huh Chang-soo, chair of GS Group, told lawmakers that in South Korea it is difficult for business leaders to refuse the government's requests.
Samsung's Lee faced most of the questions from both ruling and opposition party lawmakers as the group donated the largest amount of money to the non-profit foundations and also because it was the only group that sponsored the Choi family outside the foundations. They tried to have Lee explain who at Samsung made decisions to sponsor the Choi family, but he evaded answering.
Lawmakers also grilled the 48-year-old heir regarding his one-on-one meetings with President Park, his company's business deal with the Choi family-owned company and a contentious merger of two Samsung companies last year. Lee admitted that the way Samsung sponsored Choi's daughter was not appropriate and that he regrets it.
But most of the time, he answered that he was not aware of it or could not recall details. When asked about how he first knew the secretive confidante of the president, the Samsung leader said he cannot remember.
"I heard many times (about Choi) recently and I learned how (Samsung) supported as I confirmed the facts but I'm really sorry lawmaker that I don't know when I first learned (about Choi)," he said.
Some lawmakers' questions went beyond the scandal to other issues such as Samsung semiconductor workers who fell gravely ill and how Lee accumulated wealth. Park Young-sun, an opposition party lawmaker, grilled Lee on how much tax he paid since he received 6 billion won ($5.1 million) from his father 20 years ago, which snowballed to 8 trillion won ($6.8 billion) through complicated business dealings within Samsung and initial offerings of Samsung companies.
Another opposition lawmaker, Sohn Hye-won, questioned the role of a secretive corporate strategy office at Samsung, which allegedly makes key decisions for Samsung companies but do not have legal responsibility for the decisions they make.
Instead of answering specifically to the questions from lawmakers, Lee repeatedly apologized for disappointing the public without naming what he was apologizing for.
"There are many things that I myself feel embarrassed about and I regret as we have disappointed the public with many disgraceful things," Lee told lawmakers.
This story was corrected to state that the number of business leaders at the questioning was nine, not eight.