Samsung sets up anti-corruption panel as chief faces trials

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s Samsung Group, whose leader faces trials over a bribery scandal involving former president Park Geun-hye, has appointed external experts to a new oversight panel to stamp out criminal conduct, the chief of the committee said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman, Jay Y. Lee, arrives at Seoul high court in Seoul, South Korea, October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The move came after a judge overseeing Samsung leader Jay Y. Lee’s bribery case in October criticized the top conglomerate for its lack of an effective compliance system, saying one was needed to prevent wrongdoing by executives and its leader.

“The timing Samsung chose to make these changes is not that great... and if this committee fails, I will end up hugely disgraced,” said Kim Ji-hyung, a former supreme court judge named to head the compliance and oversight committee, told a news conference.

“Our committee will thoroughly monitor legal risks at Samsung’s top management,” he said.

He said he initially turned down Samsung’s offer, because of worries it would end up failing to make improvements and only be used by Samsung to secure favorable court rulings.

He said Lee, Samsung's de facto leader, pledged to guarantee the panel's autonomy at a meeting, adding that it would monitor potential misconduct at group companies, including flagship Samsung Electronics 005930.KS.

Although Samsung Group already has a compliance program in place, the new panel, which will begin work in February, will be run by seven people, mostly outside experts from legal circles and civic groups.

The compliance panel will comprise seven members, including two from legal circles, two from academia, two from civic groups and one from Samsung Electronics - a former Samsung communications chief.

Governance experts aired scepticism, calling the move a gesture to get lenient treatment in court and citing a repeat of criminal offences at Samsung and other family-run conglomerates, despite pledges to improve governance and transparency.

“An effective compliance program could be operated within the environment, encouraging employees to internally report violation without fearing reprisal. But this is not the case at Korean companies,” said Lee Chang-min, a specialist in corporate governance at Seoul-based Hanyang University.

A South Korean civic group released a statement that the committee is merely an outside advisory group with no legal responsibility, adding that reforms at Samsung’s board should be made first.

The 51-year-old Lee faces charges that he bribed a friend of former president Park to win government favor over succession planning at the conglomerate.

In August, the Supreme Court overturned an appeals court ruling that had given Lee a suspended jail term, raising the possibility of a tougher sentence and potential return to jail.

Reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Hyunjoo Jin and Clarence Fernandez