By Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - The third-generation leader of South Korea's top conglomerate was mostly silent at his first court appearance in what has been called the "trial of the century," as his lawyers labored to portray him as an innocent bystander in a graft scandal.
Jay Y. Lee, the 48-year-old boss of Samsung Group [SAGR.UL], is on trial on charges including bribery and embezzlement in a scandal that led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye.
He could spend more than 20 years in jail if convicted on all charges, including one that he pledged 43 billion won in bribes to foundations backed by Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
"The defendant, Jay Y. Lee, didn't even know that the contribution was made, because that's not part of his job," his lawyer, Song Wu-cheol, told the court.
Lee had merely relayed the comments from one-on-one meetings with Park to his top lieutenant, Choi Gee-sung, he added.
Choi, a former Samsung Group vice chairman considered a mentor to Jay Y. Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd <005930.KS>, left the conglomerate on March 1 after it dismantled its corporate strategy office - a nerve center long considered an instrument for the founding Lee family's management of the companies.
Lee appeared more gaunt in a white shirt and gray suit, having lost some of his C-suite polish. He was mostly expressionless at the trial, nodding occasionally when one of his attorneys reiterated his previous denials of bribe payments.
Beyond confirming personal details such as his name and occupation, Lee remained silent when the judge asked if he had anything to say in response to the charges he faces.
Lee's lawyers said the Samsung boss made financial payments in response to requests by then-President Park and sought no favors in return.
The leader of the smartphones-to-biopharmaceuticals business empire is the only founding family member among the country's most powerful conglomerates, called chaebol, to be indicted in a graft scandal that led to Park becoming South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be removed from office.
Park herself was arrested last week on charges such as colluding with Choi to pressure businesses such as Samsung to contribute to foundations that backed her administration's policy initiatives.
The defense team said Lee and other former and current Samsung executives felt threatened in their interactions with Choi Soon-sil as Samsung provided financial support.
Prosecution evidence showed that President Park rebuked Jay Y. Lee during a July 2015 meeting over inadequate support for the equestrian community.
"Do you know what will happen to the company if the president keeps getting angry?" former Samsung Electronics President Park Sang-jin quoted Jay Y. Lee as saying, in a document presented by the prosecution.
During a September 2014 meeting with Lee, President Park Geun-hye had asked for Samsung Group to take over as the main sponsor of the Korea Equestrian Federation. Park Sang-jin took over as federation head in March 2015.
But the special prosecution says Lee actively curried Park's favor to cement his control of the family business empire.
"We have secured enough evidence proving that defendant Lee Jae-yong made improper requests to the president," said Park Young-soo, the special prosecutor, referring to the Samsung leader by his Korean name.
Lee sought Park's help in maximizing his control of the Samsung companies at the lowest possible cost, he added.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)