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Alleged Samsung heiress has South Koreans riveted

A drug smuggling case in Ohio has captured the attention of South Koreans because of the defendant’s claim that she is the estranged granddaughter of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chull.

Lisette Lee, 28, of Beverly Hills was arrested in June for allegedly using a private jet to move suitcases packed with marijuana from Van Nuys to Ohio on a dozen occasions between November 2009 and June 2010. She later told federal officials that she is the heiress to the South Korean electronics fortune.

The assertion made news here because of the major influence a handful of family-run business empires known as chaebols have long had on this nation’s economy and the lives of South Koreans. In recent years, leaders of some chaebols have faced legal problems, many dealing with financial crimes such as fraud, embezzlement and breach of duty.

A Seoul TV station recently cited documents reportedly signed by a Samsung executive in the U.S. that Lee would represent the company in a closed-door event at Van Nuys airport, apparently to promote a new television line.

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Samsung this week struck back, vehemently denying that Lee had any connection to the family. “The evidence … submitted in attempts to prove that this U.S. citizen Lisette Lee is the granddaughter of the former Samsung chairman was forged,” a company spokesman said.

Seoul residents appear divided about the veracity of the story.

“I think it could be baloney. But it could be true as well,” said office worker Shin Bum-shik, 33, on Friday. “Anything’s possible with chaebols. It’s well known that these men in power have had many extramarital affairs.”

A cosmetics worker wasn’t so sure. “I think she’s just someone trying to be in the spotlight,” said Kang Ji-yun, 27. “I don’t really care.”

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The chaebols, analysts say, thrived on their ties to South Korea’s corrupt military governments in the 1960s, and several dozen large family-controlled corporate groups clung to power even after the country turned to democracy in 1987.

Analysts say chaebol executives, who are treated by many here as royalty, are not capable of policing themselves.

Last year, Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee was given a suspended sentence for tax evasion, convicted of hiding about $4 billion in aides’ bank accounts.

Lisette Lee was charged by a federal grand jury with 12 counts of possessing 220 pounds or more of marijuana with intent to distribute, and one count of conspiring to distribute 2,200 pounds or more of marijuana. She was arrested along with a bodyguard and a personal assistant, both from the Los Angeles area. Several others have also been indicted in the case.

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U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents met Lee’s private jet on June 14 after it landed in Ohio just as she and several others were loading 13 suitcases containing about 500 pounds of marijuana into three waiting vans, according to the official complaint.

Lee told agents that she is a model and recording artist who thought she was bringing equipment and belongings to a boyfriend who had bought a horse farm in Ohio. The chartered Gulf Stream jet cost $50,000 per round trip, officials said.

Once she was in jail, Lee’s lawyers followed up on her claim that she was an heiress to the Samsung fortune on her mother’s side and an heiress to the Sony fortune on her father’s side.

Shortly after her birth, Lee claimed, her parents turned over their child to their close friends in California, who raised her, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper said.

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ethan Kim of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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