Dental lobby chief, six others held over bribery allegation

Prosecutors have arrested Sadao Usuda, chairman of the Japan Dental Association, and Takeshi Shimomura, a member of a government advisory body, in connection with bribes the former allegedly paid to the latter for lobbying efforts aimed at boosting dental-service fees.

The bribery affair may hamper Diet debate on pension reform, because the opposition camp is demanding answers before debate proceeds. Shimomura, a member of the Central Social Insurance Medical Council, formerly served as chief of the Social Insurance Agency.

Five others, including Katsutoshi Kato, another member of the medical council, have also been arrested in connection with the case, investigative sources said. Kato, 59, also serves as a vice chairman of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation’s largest labor organization.

The four others are Hirotake Uchida, 63; Yasuyuki Hirai, 64; Akio Umeda, 76; and Yuichiro Honda, 73.

Uchida, Hirai and Umeda are current and former executives of the dental association, while Honda serves as chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Dental Association.

Usuda is known for his strong political and bureaucratic connections; the JDA’s political arm serves as one of the biggest patrons of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Investigators from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office searched the JDA secretariat in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward for six hours until early Thursday. They emerged from the office around 5:50 a.m., carrying boxes of seized documents.

Shimomura, 73, is suspected of receiving some 2 million yen in money and goods from Usuda, 73, and others in June 2001 in return for making comments aimed at benefiting the dental association during meetings of the advisory panel to the health, labor and welfare minister.

The 30-member Central Social Insurance Medical Council debates issues pertaining to medical-service fees for doctors and dentists before advising the health minister. Its members are appointed by the minister and their status is equivalent to that of public servants.

Usuda is suspected of asking Shimomura to lead discussions at the advisory panel in a manner that would result in an increase of dental service fees, the sources said.

Kato is suspected of receiving 1.3 million yen in bribes — given in the form of wining and dining as well as gift coupons — on several occasions between July 2001 and last October, according to the sources.

In February, prosecutors raided the offices of the association’s political group and searched the homes of the group’s top executives over allegations that the group failed to report 20 million yen in political donations made to Diet members in 2001 and 2002.

The JDA is a major contributor to the LDP, which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi heads.

The bribery allegations surfaced during questioning of individuals involved in suspected violations of the Political Funds Control Law, according to investigative sources.

Prosecutors suspect that the bribes received by Shimomura and Kato came from secret funds created by the dental association and its political arm, the sources said.

Usuda, who has led the dental association since March 2000, also heads its political arm.

The JDA’s political body collects roughly 1.8 billion yen in annual fees from its 50,000 members; some of this money has been used for donations to the LDP.

Between 2000 and 2003, the JDA arm donated 1.5 billion yen to the LDP’s fund-management body, in addition to various other forms of financial help extended to roughly 120 Diet members, most of whom belonged to the LDP, the sources said.

The bribery scandal involving the dental association may affect ongoing deliberations in the Diet over pension reform.

The Democratic Party of Japan demanded Thursday that a special debate on the scandal be held at the House of Representatives committee on health and labor issues.