Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto named Lower House Budget Committee chairman Hikaru Matsunaga as the new finance minister Friday, entrusting him with the task of cleaning up the ministry’s image in the wake of a bribery scandal.The scandal, in which two ministry inspectors were arrested earlier in the week for allegedly accepting bribes from banks, forced Hiroshi Mitsuzuka to resign Wednesday in the midst of Diet deliberations on key bills and before submission of the fiscal 1998 budget.Matsunaga, 69, a former attorney and prosecutor, has previously headed the Education and trade ministries. His image as a man versed in the law was considered to be a factor in Hashimoto’s choice for the job of reforming the scandal-tainted ministry.”I decided to respond to the request of the prime minister at this critical time because I feel that a politician should do everything possible to carry out a given task,” he told a news conference after the appointment. But in fact, Matsunaga was chosen only after Yoshiro Mori, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Executive Council, refused to accept Hashimoto’s request that he assume the post vacated by Mitsuzuka.Touching on the widening scandal, Matsunaga said the ministry should “gravely consider” the fact that the fiasco led to the first-ever raid on the ministry building by prosecutors and that public faith in the ministry has plummeted. “I expect to use this opportunity to thoroughly enforce official discipline (at the ministry) and take strict measures against any actions and people believed to be wrong,” he said.Restore public trust in the ministry and its policies is of the utmost importance, Matsunaga added. The ministry, considered to be at the top of the nation’s bureaucratic system, is currently conducting an in-house investigation of all personnel involved with the private financial sector over the past five years to review wining and dining — believed to be a potential hotbed of bribery.LDP faction that was once led by the late Michio Watanabe, a former foreign minister.Many observers said the prime minister eventually decided to do away with the party tradition of selecting Cabinet members based on factional affiliations in an effort to show his determination to overhaul the ministry.
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