The indictment of Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa’s chief secretary is prompting observers to question the timing of the arrest and details of the charges because of the impact the probe poses to national politics.
Two things are setting off alarm bells. First, prosecutors usually avoid arresting people linked to politicians shortly before an election. Second, political fund law violations usually involve secret funds.
But this is the first time prosecutors have targeted officially documented donations at a time when a general election with a rare but realistic chance of changing the status quo is due within months. The DPJ has been seen as having a good chance of unseating the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the next poll.
“In general, prosecutors do not have to clarify in detail the background of their indictment (before trials), but considering the major influence their action made on politics, this was exceptional, and they should have explained it better,” said Noburo Gohara, professor of law at Toin University of Yokohama Compliance Research Center and a former prosecutor.
A special investigative squad from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office on Tuesday indicted Takanori Okubo, 47, for allegedly accepting ¥35 million in donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co. The prosecutors alleged the builder funneled the donations through two dummy entities it set up between 2003 and 2006. The Political Funds Control Law bans direct corporate donations to individual politicians.
Okubo allegedly received the funds under false names and generated false fund reports.
On Tuesday, prosecutors told reporters they could not ignore that Rikuzankai, the Ozawa fundraising body Okubo headed, was “hiding the grave fact from the public that they were taking donations from a specific contractor.”
Tatsuya Sakuma, head of the special investigation squad, denied that the prosecutors were trying to influence politics by arresting a key opposition camp aide before a pivotal election.
“There is no way we would conduct a criminal investigation with such intent,” Sakuma said. “We could not ignore the graveness of the case.”
Gohara, a former veteran on the special investigation squad himself, believes the team only gave the public a general explanation. What they are supposed to do is clearly explain how the political funds law was interpreted, and disclose the grounds on which Okubo’s arrest and indictment were made.
To constitute a violation of the Political Funds Control Law, the political organizations donating the funds have to be dummy entities with no “substantial activities,” and the receiver of the funds has to be aware of that, Gohara said.
If the two dummy entities allegedly controlled by Nishimatsu employees are considered political groups without substantial activities, they are not alone. There are thousands of similar groups in Japan, Gohara said.
The law stipulates that political fund management bodies must clarify where their donations come from and how they use the money. Gohara said all of the income and expenses were documented in this case.
Since all the transactions are on record, the Okubo case can’t be simply described as bribes, and that is why the prosecution’s case is weak.
“If it’s a bribe, the money can be used in any way they want, and that would be illegal,” he said, noting there is a clear difference in the Okubo case.
Gohara stressed that if the prosecutors intend to win this case, they will need to show the public why this case is significant.
Some, including DPJ legislators, speculate that “kokusaku” (national policy) is involved in Okubo’s indictment, and that the prosecutors have been ordered by the bureaucrats to tarnish the DPJ.
But Gohara speculated that the special squad, under pressure, lowered its standards to catch politicians without thinking of the consequences.
Now prosecutors must continue to investigate the LDP, too, he said. “Unless they do that, there is no explanation for why they opened this case in the first place.”
Now that Okubo has been indicted, “the case must be brought to court as soon as possible, especially before the election,” Gohara said.