Welfare ministry probed in fee fraud

Kyodo News

Prosecutors searched the welfare ministry Monday, a day after a senior ministry official was arrested for alleged involvement in abusing a postage discount system for the disabled.

The special investigation squad of the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office entered the ministry to search the office of Atsuko Muraki, 53, director general of the Equal Employment, Children and Families Bureau. Her house in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, was searched earlier in the day.

Muraki was arrested on suspicion of issuing a fabricated certificate to recognize an organization as a group for the disabled, thus enabling it to use the postage discount system.

The group, formerly called Rin-no-kai and now known as Hakusan-kai, does not qualify as an organization for the disabled. It helped several companies send direct mail using the discount system to avoid full postage fees.

It is the second time prosecutors have searched the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry for evidence of ministry officials’ involvement in the case. A ministry section chief was arrested in May.

According to investigative sources, the prosecutors are investigating whether there was pressure from a politician to recognize Hakusan-kai as an organization for the disabled.

Muraki’s former boss, whose name is being withheld, has said that a Diet member asked around February 2004 for the issuance of a certificate to designate the group as an organization for disabled people, the sources said.

On Sunday, a fresh warrant was served on Tsutomu Kamimura, 39, the official arrested in May, on suspicion of falsifying documents in connection with the case. Kamimura, a section chief in the ministry’s health and welfare planning division for the disabled, was initially arrested on suspicion of falsifying the certificate issued to the group.

Fresh warrants were also served Monday on Kunio Kurasawa, 73, the founder of the group, and Tadashi Kono, 68, a former member. Kurasawa was arrested in April and Kono in May.

The prosecutors suspect Muraki, when she headed a ministry section in charge of measures for the disabled, collaborated with the three others under arrest to falsify the certificate in early June 2004, the investigative sources said. The document was presented to Japan Post that same month, they said.

Muraki has denied any wrongdoing, the sources said. Prior to her arrest, she also told reporters she has no memory of the group’s name or issuance of the document.

But Kamimura and Kurasawa have implicated her in the scam. Kamimura has said he handed a certificate forged by him to Muraki while Kurasawa said he received the document directly from her, according to the sources.

Hakusan-kai allegedly tied up with companies that included Osaka-based ad agency Shinsei Kigyo to send direct mail from firms, among them electronics discount chain Best Denki Co., by abusing the discount system to save postage fees.

Under Japan Post’s postage discount system for disabled people, charges are discounted to around ¥8 each per item from the regular ¥120.