• Kyodo

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The Fukuoka District Court ordered Kitakyushu Mayor Koichi Sueyoshi and 70 other city officials Thursday to reimburse 13.4 million yen in public funds that were spent on “business meals” by local officials in fiscal 1995.

In the rare ruling warning against excessive spending of taxpayers’ money for bureaucrats’ meals, Judge Hiroshi Koga said a payment of over 5,000 yen per person per meal can constitute an abuse of the right to use taxpayers’ money.

The suit was filed in 1998 by 45 citizens, including members of a local civic ombudsman group. The civic group claimed the defendants in the city spent too much money on 229 occasions in fiscal 1995.

They demanded that the mayor and the 70 officials pay back 25 million yen, which was the total amount of the meals. Of the amount, the district court ordered the bureaucrats to reimburse what they spent in excess of 5,000 yen per person per meal.

In a statement released after the ruling was handed down, Sueyoshi said, “It was regrettable the court did not accept our argument.” He said he will decide later whether to appeal.

The money was spent at a time when public criticism mounted against bureaucrats using taxpayers’ money to wine and dine higher-ranking bureaucrats in the name of information-gathering.

Such entertaining included an event by local public workers to host career bureaucrats from the central government. Kitakyushu is one of 12 designated major cities in Japan outside Tokyo.

The meals included those in which more than two bottles of beer or sake were ordered, and one in Tokyo’s Akasaka district that cost 25,000 yen per person.

Koga said in the ruling that the fund was originally supposed to be for lunches, snacks and teas in meetings between bureaucrats or those between bureaucrats and businesspeople.

“Spending that goes beyond social norms of courtesy cannot be accepted and constitutes an abuse of (the officials’) discretionary power,” the judge said.

Mayor Sueyoshi failed to curb the overspending by the city officials even though he had a duty to correct such practices by bureaucrats, the judge said as he recognized the mayor’s responsibility for redress.

In 1996, the plaintiffs asked Kitakyushu for information on its wining and dining expenses, but it was only a year later that they obtained even part of the data they sought.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said Thursday’s ruling is significant in that it exposed how city officials freely used taxpayers’ money to entertain fellow bureaucrats in the name of “business meals.”

The 5,000 yen criteria set in the ruling reflects the “common sense of the people” and shows how bureaucrats lack such common sense,” the lawyers said in a statement.

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