KOBE – A former prefectural assemblyman who gained notoriety for weeping hysterically at a 2014 news conference over his dubious spending of political funds pleaded not guilty Tuesday to fraud charges stemming from his alleged misuse of the money.
“I’ve never made false statements in my funds report,” Ryutaro Nonomura, a 49-year-old former member of the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly, said during the first session of his trial at the Kobe District Court.
The trial’s opening had been postponed to Tuesday because he had failed to appear on the initially planned date.
Outside the court, 1,013 people waited in line for one of the 80 seats granted to the general public.
In his first public appearance since what came to be known as the “crying press conference” in July 2014, Nonomura appeared wearing glasses and with a shaved head, and replied to questions in a subdued tone. Shaving one’s head is generally recognized as a gesture of apology.
In the 2014 news conference, Nonomura burst into tears, banged his fist on the table and yelled at reporters while denying any wrongdoing. The video went viral online, and Nonomura resigned his seat in the prefectural assembly the same month.
His behavior has continued to draw media attention as he failed to appear at the courthouse when his trial was supposed to start Nov. 24, citing his mental condition.
Nonomura’s lawyer said at that time that his client “got panicked as he bumped into media members when he tried to leave his home” to go to the courthouse. To ensure his attendance Tuesday, the court issued a bench warrant and Nonomura was taken to the courthouse Monday morning.
Before entering his plea, Nonomura said he “deeply regrets and apologizes” for missing the original opening of his trial.
According to the indictment, Nonomura falsely claimed he made numerous one-day business trips and bought stamps to swindle about ¥9.13 million in funds provided to assembly members for their research activities. This allegedly took place over three years from fiscal 2011, when he was first elected.
Nonomura has returned all the funds he received as costs for his research activities, which totaled ¥18.34 million, but prosecutors decided to indict him, although without arrest.
The prosecutors said he was reluctant to return the funds he received and realized he could be paid if he claimed to make one-day business trips without needing to submit proof of where he stayed overnight.
“Even though the assembly secretariat told him to submit details of the business trips (he said he made), he refused to do so, saying there is no such rule in the guidance of political activities funds,” they said.
Nonomura’s case prompted similar cases of misused political funds to surface nationwide.
According to the Japan Citizen’s Ombudsman Association, the number of local governments that disclose financial papers, including receipts and balance sheets, increased from one to five after the incident.
In Higashiosaka, where a number of cases involving misuse of political funds have been detected, all eight Osaka Ishin no Kai candidates, which called for a temporary suspension of political activities funds, won seats in the municipal assembly last September.
The party is considering introducing a system of granting political activity funds only after receipts are examined by a third party.
While local governments and parties have tried to ensure transparency of the usage of political funds, it came to light last July that Jiminto Kobe, the now-defunct local Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers’ group, had misused political activities funds.
Since the incident took place even as the Nonomura case was unfolding, it triggered harsh criticism.
“There is growing interest (among the public) on political activity funds after the Nonomura incident, but just one aspect of it — misuse of funds,” said Satoshi Shinkai, an executive of Japan Citizen’s Ombudsman Association. “People should be more interested in whether politicians are making good use of it.”
Prosecutors often drop cases involving misuse of political funds after the suspect repays the funds. In Nonomura’s case, the prosecutors indicted him even though he repaid the funds, which is why experts are closely following the case.