March 9 (UPI) -- Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman and de facto leader of the Samsung electronics conglomerate, formally denied bribery charges Thursday in a preliminary hearing in Seoul.
Lee, known professionally in the West as Jay Y. Lee, and four other Samsung executives face a variety of charges in a forthcoming trial. Lee is accused of funneling $36 million in bribes to non-profit groups operated by Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
As a result of the scandal, Park was impeached by parliament in December and faces removal from the presidency.
Lee was not present in the courtroom Thursday, nor were the other accused executives. He was charged with bribery, embezzlement, illegal transfer of property abroad and perjury before parliament.
The prosecution says Lee sought government approval for a merger of Samsung subsidiaries, which would strengthen the family's control of the company, and bribed Park's confidante to accomplish it. Park Young-soo, the chief prosecutor in the case, referred to the matter as the "trial of the century."
It is the latest in corruption scandals involving "chebol," or South Korean conglomerates, which have led to light sentences being handed to executives and the South Korean public has grown impatient with them, The New York Times reported.
Lee's father, Lee Kun-hee was convicted twice of corruption charges and pardoned both times. Massive demonstrations against President Park have included demands for Lee's arrest, and she was named as an accomplice in Lee's case by the prosecution.
The next preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 23. It is unknown when a trial will begin.
Lee, 48, has led the Samsung group since his father's 2014 heart attack.