Minister’s reticence may backfire

by Reiji Yoshida

It’s turning into a hard week at the Diet for farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, whose political funds report revealed suspiciously high utility expenditures at his rent-free government office.

By refusing to disclose any details of the irregular spending — the minister has cited a law that allows politicians to withhold such information — Matsuoka is flirting with a major scandal.

For 2005, Matsuoka declared his political funds control body spent 5.07 million yen on water, lighting and heating. Over the five years up to 2005, such expenditures totaled as much as 28.8 million yen.

The problem is Matsuoka registered the office’s location at a rent-free public office building for Diet members in Tokyo, where lawmakers can use tap water and electricity free of charge at government, or rather taxpayers’, expense.

“All the costs of water, lighting and heating should have been zero, but huge expenditures have been recorded,” said lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima at an Upper House Budget Committee session Tuesday. “That’s too unnatural and impossible to understand.”

The dispute intensified when Matsuoka suggested that the use of purifiers pushed up the cost of the tap water.

Opposition lawmakers countered that no processed water would cost that much.

According to Katsuyuki Hashimoto, who runs a Web site selling about 100 types of water purifiers, the average cost of running those machines is only 12,000 yen a year, assuming that 40 liters of water is consumed a day.

“It’s impossible to spend nearly 30 million yen over five years. (Matsuoka’s claim) is outrageous,” political commentator Minoru Morita said.

Opposition lawmakers say Matsuoka owes the public an explanation and should be summoned to give sworn testimony in the Diet.

Indeed, many lawmakers are believed to have taken advantage of the utility expenditure as a loophole to hide shady political spending. According to the Political Funds Control Law, lawmakers are not required to disclose any details of the utility costs and no receipts are required to be attached to the report.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently defended Matsuoka at the Diet, repeating that he has simply reported his expenditures as required by the funds law.

For many political watchers, Abe’s appointment of Matsuoka in September was a surprise, as rumors had long circulated of Matsuoka’s shady political fund management.

“Prime Minister Abe has a weak sense of political ethics. He has appointed many politicians suspected (of misdeeds),” Morita said.

Matsuoka is not the first minister of Abe’s Cabinet to be hit by a money scandal. Reform minister Genichiro Sata stepped down in December after admitting his political fund management body declared false expenditures of 78 million yen over a period of 10 years.