SEOUL South Korean President Park Geun-hye colluded with a friend to take bribes from Samsung Group aimed at cementing Samsung Chief Jay Y. Lee's control of the conglomerate, the special prosecutor's office said on Monday, paving the way for Park to be prosecuted if removed from office.
The findings of the 70-day probe directly accuse the impeached Park of wrongdoing on several charges, including the bribery conspiracy implicating Samsung.
Lee goes on trial for bribery and embezzlement on Thursday amid a corruption scandal that has rocked South Korea and led to the impeachment.
Park, 65, has had her powers suspended since her impeachment by parliament in December. Should the Constitutional Court uphold the impeachment, she would become the country's first democratically elected president to be thrown out of office, triggering an election in Asia's fourth-largest economy.
A decision is expected as early as this week.
South Korean law does not allow a sitting president to be indicted unless she is accused of treason. No formal charges can be brought against her until she is either removed from office or her term ends as scheduled in late February 2018.
Her removal from office would subject her to a fresh investigation by state prosecutors.
"Bribery charges related to the president, and the culture blacklist case ... have been transferred to the prosecutors' office," special prosecutor Park Young-soo told a televised news conference.
The special prosecutor also said the president was instrumental in blacklisting more than 9,000 artists, authors and movie industry professionals and excluding them from government assistance that constituted an abuse of power.
In a statement detailing the findings of its investigation, the special prosecutor's office said the National Pension Service voted in favour of a merger of two Samsung Group affiliates in 2015, despite anticipating a 138.8 billion won ($119.87 million) loss.
CHARGES AGAINST PARK "FICTION"
"Samsung Group vice chairman Lee Jae-yong colluded with others including the corporate strategy office chief Choi Gee-sung to bribe the president and Choi Soon-sil with an aim to receive support for his succession by embezzling corporate funds," special prosecutor Park told a televised news conference, referring to the Samsung chief's Korean name.
Choi is President Park's long-time confidant.
Lee, 48, pledged 43 billion won ($37.19 million) in return for support from Park and Choi for a variety of steps including a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015 and the 2016 domestic listing of a loss-making drug maker Samsung Biologics Cfo Ltd, the special prosecutor said.
Park, Choi and Lee have all denied wrongdoing.
Park's lawyer said on Monday that the special prosecutor's charges against her were "fiction" and that she did not receive illicit favours from Samsung.
"Future court proceedings will reveal the truth," Samsung said in a statement, reiterating it did not pay bribes or make improper requests seeking favours.
The investigation looked into an influence-peddling scandal involving Park, who was impeached after accusations she had colluded with Choi to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back the president's policy initiatives.
The state prosecutor's office said in a statement that it had re-grouped the team of investigators which indicted Choi in November to take over and "conduct the probe according to law and principle without prejudice".
Lee, a third-generation leader of the Samsung tech giant "chaebol", and four other executives, were last week charged with bribery and embezzlement over the corruption scandal.
Based on the main charges levied against Lee, he could face more than 20 years in prison if convicted.
($1 = 1,156 won)
(Additional reporting by Se Young Lee; Writing by Christine Kim and Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie)