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Prosecutors search Obuchi fundraising group’s office for evidence of fraud

Kyodo

Prosecutors searched the office of former METI chief Yuko Obuchi’s support group and the home of a former aide Thursday as they launched a formal probe into political fund report irregularities linked to the one-time rising star of the Abe Cabinet.

The move by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office’s special investigative arm prompted some of Obuchi’s fellow lawmakers from all sides to call for her to resign from the House of Representatives. Obuchi, who belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, stepped down as chief of the prestigious Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry last week after less than two months in office.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been hit by a spate of political funds scandals since he reshuffled the Cabinet in September. Abe said he would like to hear an explanation from Obuchi on the matter.

“I’d like to ask her to fulfill her responsibility to explain as a Diet member who has a mandate from the people,” Abe told the Lower House Budget Committee.

The investigation threatens the political prospects of the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who some observers said was being groomed to become the country’s first female prime minister.

The short-lived trade and industry chief has vowed to look into the matter with the help of outside experts and rejected the idea of stepping down as a lawmaker.

Obuchi was quoted by an LDP executive as saying in a phone call on Thursday: “I’m determined to fulfill my duty and role as a Diet member.”

Her office, in an apologetic statement, said a report that Obuchi was considering quitting was groundless.

Another LDP executive said “It would be better for her to resign as a lawmaker before the wound gets worse in order to preserve her political future.”

A former Cabinet member said “There is no choice but to quit as a lawmaker if investigative authorities take action.”

Opposition parties tried to seize on the scandal to put the Abe administration on the defensive. Democratic Party of Japan leader Banri Kaieda called the situation “extremely serious.”

Hiroshi Nakata, the Diet affairs chief of the Party for Future Generations, told reporters: “Judging from the information we have at the moment, her resignation is inevitable.”

On Thursday morning, prosecutors went through the home of Kenichiro Orita, the former aide who claims to have prepared the funds reports for Obuchi’s support group and for another two of the four political bodies implicated in the scandal. They have already questioned him on a voluntary basis.

The groups’ funds reports between show that between 2008 and 2011, expenses for outings to theaters and baseball games exceeded money booked as received from the participants by roughly ¥55 million.

Even though a similar theater outing was also held in 2012, no entries were made for either revenue or expenses in the reports of her support group and another body.

Orita resigned as mayor of Nakanojo, Gunma Prefecture, last Friday, citing his difficulty in continuing to serve while dealing with issues stemming from the funds irregularities.

For decades, Orita served as a secretary to Obuchi’s father, and after his death in 2000, to the daughter who succeeded her father in representing a Gunma constituency in the House of Representatives.

A civic group has filed a criminal complaint against Obuchi and Orita over possible violations of the political funds control law and the public offices election law.