The resignation of economy minister Akira Amari, one of the closest political allies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, does not answer all the questions raised by the allegations that he and his secretaries received millions of yen from a construction firm in Chiba Prefecture seeking his office’s intervention to settle a dispute with a government-funded housing corporation. Amari still owes the public, which is weary of the repeated money scandals involving key members of the Abe administration, a convincing account of his and his aides’ acts.
Amari quit Thursday after acknowledging in a news conference that he had received a total of ¥1 million from the construction company on two occasions in 2013 and 2014 — one time at his ministerial office — and that one of his secretaries separately received ¥5 million from the firm, ¥3 million of which the aide used “privately.” The veteran lawmaker denied he acted illegally in receiving the money — which he did not appear to remember just a week ago when the scandal broke in a weekly magazine report — saying he instructed his aides to adequately process the money as political donations.
Amari said he was resigning to take responsibility as the supervisor of his aides, who were also found to have been wined and dined by the construction firm, and to fulfill his duty as a Cabinet minister to prevent the scandal from disrupting Diet deliberations. Abe is reported to have been reluctant to ax Amari and told the Diet the previous day that he would like the minister to stay in his job — even as Amari was scheduled to speak to the media to give his account Thursday.
With Amari’s resignation, Abe lost a close ally who had supported him from during his first tenure as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and his return to the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012 and subsequently that of the government. As minister in charge of economy revitalization, Amari was put in charge of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks, which concluded last year, and was viewed as crucial for the upcoming Diet deliberations to ratify the pact. At the same time, his exit — the fourth resignation of Abe’s Cabinet minister since 2013 — may remove an irritant for the administration going forward.
But the resignation of yet another Cabinet minister must not end yet another money scandal involving Diet members. Abe, who acknowledged his responsibility for putting Amari in the Cabinet position, should also clarify what he intends to do about the recurring problems related to money in politics.
The scandal broke last week when the Shukan Bunshun reported that a worker at the construction firm consulted Amari’s office, asking it to intervene in the discussions the company was having with the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) over compensation for damage that it incurred in a road construction project. This company allegedly provided at least ¥12 million in cash and benefits to Amari and his aides as rewards for their help. Other media reports also show that UR struck a deal with the firm to pay ¥220 million in compensation in August 2013 — two months after an Amari aide first met with a UR official. Officials of the public housing corporation reportedly met with Amari’s aides a dozen times since June 2013, including one session at the office in Amari’s home constituency in Kanagawa Prefecture, in which the employee of the construction firm also took part.
The question is whether the behavior of Amari and his aides constitute a violation of the anti-graft law, which prohibits lawmakers and their aides from receiving financial benefits for using their power to influence contracts and administrative decisions involving national and local governments, or a breach of the Political Funds Control Law for inaccurate reporting of political donations. UR is an independent administration body in which the national government has a nearly 100 percent stake.
Amari has denied that his office tried to influence UR’s compensation talks with the construction firm, a position reportedly echoed by UR. The lawmaker said his aides, who were interviewed by a lawyer about the allegations, do not recall asking UR to do something about its dealings with the construction firm — an account that sounds less than convincing.
After the magazine broke the scandal, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura said Amari was “trapped” by the people at the construction firm that provided the benefits to his office — a view reportedly echoed by others in the party, as if to deflect public criticism by portraying Amari as a victim of a scheme to ensnare him. Such remarks appear to reflect how people in the LDP and the administration view money scandals involving lawmakers. The problems seem to run deep.