|

SHIMIN OMBUDSMAN

Citizen watchdogs see secrets law reviving tax money abuses

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Democratic societies often have an ombudsman system of ordinary citizens who monitor how local and national tax money is spent.

In Japan, the National Citizens’ (Shimin) Ombudsman Network, a confederation of government watchdogs, came into being in 1994. Dedicated Shimin Ombudsman volunteers around the country are sifting through receipts and accounting information in an attempt to create more financial and political transparency.

What does a Shimin Ombudsman do?

The National Shimin Ombudsman Network was established to monitor, analyze, and publicize unfair and inappropriate — but not always illegal in the strictest sense of the word — spending by national- and local-level public authorities.

There are three areas in particular where their activities have garnered extensive media coverage and led to changes in local government practices: entertainment expenses, exposure of falsified receipts, and the rooting out of bid-rigging in public works’ projects.

By demanding local and national bureaucrats open their books, the ombudsmen have exposed the use of extravagant meals and receptions, particularly for meetings between national and local bureaucrats.

Shimin Ombudsman investigations have also uncovered numerous incidents of dummy receipts from hotels or taxi companies that bureaucrats used to disguise money diverted to other purposes. Such abuse often occurs when bureaucrats take “fact-finding” trips or “study tours” within Japan or overseas.

Ombudsmen also check the accounting receipts for public works-related bids between construction firms and local governments, often exposing clear incidences of fraud.

Have their efforts had much success?

The watchdog groups make many discoveries that cast a public spotlight on how taxpayer money is used.

They have found tax money being used to buy cigarettes, for example, or to pay cab fare for people going home from parties.

The network calculated that, in the early 1990s, bureaucrats in the 47 prefectures were spending ¥30 billion annually on entertainment, including ¥2.3 billion annually on food alone.

Local bureaucrats and politicians vigorously defended their spending by insisting it was the only way to “smoothly obtain” information, or argue they were following traditional Japanese custom. But pressure on local governments, including lawsuits initiated by Shimin Ombudsman groups, led to changes and to the passage of new laws on entertainment expenses by local governments.

By 2003, according to a Shimin Ombudsman survey, the average amount of money spent on wining and dining per prefecture had dropped 78 percent from ¥388 million in 1995 to about ¥87 million in 2001.

Who are the ombudsmen?

Many are lawyers, tax experts and accountants, but the group is open to anyone and no qualifications are necessary to join. Housewives, retirees and students also participate.

The National Shimin Ombudsman Network, based in Nagoya, has 85 members and is run by three secretaries-general, an office manager, and a financial director. Local groups gather for an annual meeting each summer.

Shimin Ombudsman does not take donations from public or private organizations, except to cover operating expenses at its yearly national meeting.

Are the ombudsmen concerned about what effect the new state secrets law will have on government transparency?

Very much so. Last September, the network warned that the new law would negatively affect attempts to find out how tax money was being spent by prefectural police, the central government — particularly the Foreign and Defense ministries — and to a lesser extent, local governments.

The group noted that even without the law, police released almost no information, although a few prefectural forces did release a bit of expense data related to investigations. The group predicted that even this amount could vanish as police nationwide use the secrets law to classify almost all information related to investigative expenses.

As to central government expenses, the ombudsmen noted that in the past, the Foreign Ministry has insisted that outlays for things like high-priced wines and antique furniture were necessary to obtain diplomatic information.

The ombudsman network warned that the ministry would classify more of this kind of information under the new law, making it far more difficult to track down how diplomats use our money.

How will the secrets law affect the ombudsmen’s activities?

The ombudsman network is very concerned that its efforts to pry information from the police, Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials in particular will make them the target of government surveillance under the new law.

They noted that in 2002, they had a run-in with defense officials who were compiling internal memos on the group and its political beliefs, and are growing concerned that government harassment will increase with the new law.

But they also warn that just relying on others won’t change the way the bureaucracy operates, and that their purpose is to return bureaucratic administration to the people by making maximum use of their constitutional rights.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp