In another blow to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the ruling coalition, the House of Representatives Steering Committee agreed Thursday to have the full chamber vote on a request to arrest LDP lawmaker Takanori Sakai over alleged political fund law violations.
Investigators suspect that Sakai violated the Political Funds Control Law by ordering his secretaries not to report 120 million yen in donations from several firms between 1997 and 2001.
The committee was expected to unanimously approve the request by prosecutors, delivered via Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama, at a session Friday. The motion will then be brought to a vote in a plenary session later Friday, where it will almost certainly be approved.
During Thursday’s committee session, the Justice Ministry explained that the lawmaker denies the allegations and must be arrested because he may destroy evidence, according to participants.
Two of Sakai’s aides were arrested earlier this week in connection with the case. The cell phone of one aide contained an e-mail from the lawmaker instructing her to destroy evidence, the ministry said.
The swift action is being prompted by the ruling camp’s fears over any possible backlash in the lead up to local elections scheduled for next month. The opposition camp meanwhile is gearing up to further grill Koizumi over his responsibility for the scandal as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The latest scandal will likely put more public pressure on Koizumi to push forward with party reforms and place stricter controls on political donations — a move that a vast majority of LDP members has been reluctant to accept.
Sakai reportedly received donations from several companies, including Tokyo-based personnel-training company Nippon Manpower Co. and personnel dispatch firm Career Staff Ltd.
Sakai, a former Finance Ministry official elected from the Saga No. 1 constituency, had been chairman of the Lower House Health, Labor and Welfare Committee until Tuesday, when two of his secretaries were arrested in connection with the case. He had also served as parliamentary vice labor minister.
Under the Constitution, Diet members have immunity from arrest while the Diet is in session. This right can be revoked if a majority of the chamber to which the lawmaker belongs authorizes an arrest request.
If the request is approved, Sakai will become the 20th Diet member in the postwar period to be arrested after having his immunity stripped. The most recent case was that of Lower House member Muneo Suzuki, who was arrested last year for allegedly accepting bribes.
Earlier Thursday, Sakai submitted to the LDP a letter saying that he wants to leave the party for “private reasons.” His resignation was rejected, and party officials said that he will be expelled from the party upon his arrest.
The rapid move by prosecutors, coming only two days after the arrest of Sakai’s two secretaries, has surprised many lawmakers because Diet members — not just their fund-managing secretaries — are rarely arrested for abuses of the Political Funds Control Law, which is often criticized for its loopholes and loose application by investigative authorities.
Many lawmakers have speculated that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There may be a murky tide of shady cash flow behind the anticipated arrest of Sakai, given the hardline stance of prosecutors and the large amount of money he received.
“It is true many incidents (involving political donations) have occurred when the government loosened or tightened regulations,” said Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan. “We have to watch cases like this very carefully.”
The DPJ will set up an investigative team to examine the money flow of Diet members who have held positions similar to that of Sakai, Okada said.
Sakai’s likely arrest will give more ammunition to the opposition camp, creating a bumpy ride ahead for the Koizumi government.
The Koizumi Cabinet has already been grilled by opposition parties over a number of scandals in recent weeks, including alleged kickback-taking and donation embezzlement by former aides to farm minister Tadamori Oshima.
New laws said futile
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda on Thursday voiced regret over the expected arrest of Takanori Sakai, his close colleague in the Liberal Democratic Party.
He questioned the effectiveness, however, of tightening the regulations that govern political donations in any drive to curb financial scandals.
“I thought he was doing his job properly. I’m quite shocked and think the incident is very regrettable,” said Fukuda.
Both lawmakers belong to the same Liberal Democratic Party faction and were first elected to the House of Representatives at the same time, in 1990.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that reform measures regarding the rules governing political donations should be implemented during the current Diet session.
But Fukuda was skeptical about revising the existing laws, stating that politicians might simply break any new ones.
“I want you to consider whether we can carry out good political activities if you just tighten up the rules one after another,” Fukuda told a news conference.
The top government spokesman stressed that it is the job of politicians and political parties to consider reform steps, and not of the government.
“It’s the parties who have to do the job, and each politician must tighten their sense of responsibility never to let such an incident occur again.”
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