Prosecutors plan to question accountants and other staffers related to a fundraising body for trade minister Toshihiro Nikai as they widen their probe into illicit political donations to include Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet, sources said Saturday.
An expanded team of nearly a dozen prosecutors is expected to begin questioning Nikai’s associates within the week. They suspect Nikai’s staff was aware that accepting money for fundraising tickets bought by two political organizations linked to Nishimatsu Construction Co., and other donations allegedly made by the contractor, were illegal, they said.
The move by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office is based on accounts by former Nishimatsu President Mikio Kunisawa, who has been arrested for breaking the political funds control law, the sources said.
Kunisawa has reportedly explained the details of the schemes, in which fundraising bodies for Nikai and Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa allegedly accepted the funds in question from the two Nishimatsu groups.
In addition, a person related to Nishimatsu has told the prosecutors that around ¥60 million in off-the-book donations were made to a senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker over a period spanning more than 10 years.
The sources said the senior lawmaker is none other than Nikai. The economy, trade and industry minister denied any wrongdoing, but prosecutors are trying to determine whether the alleged donations broke the law.
The person said the money was disbursed from slush funds at Nishimatsu Construction and was not recorded in political fund reports required to be submitted by the politician’s fund management body, the sources said.
This is the first time slush funds have been mentioned in connection with the Nishimatsu case. The person said the lawmaker was getting around ¥5 million a year, a sum that grew to about ¥60 million over more than 10 years, the sources said.
The lawmaker’s funds reports from 2004 to 2006 did not disclose any of the donations.
Failure to log donations in the funds reports violates the political funds control law and is punishable by a prison term of up to five years or a fine of up to ¥1 million.
Earlier Saturday, Ozawa said the alleged scandal ought to be explained by Nikai.
In a rare appearance over the weekend, Ozawa, whose top aide has been arrested in connection with the scandal, told reporters that Nikai and the LDP need “to consider themselves whether to provide an explanation to the public.”
Separately, sources in the opposition camp said the same day that the DPJ will demand Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Iwao Uruma appear before a Diet committee on Monday to answer charges he told the media, on condition of anonymity, that the Nishimatsu probe wouldn’t spill over to the LDP.
“If this is true, I find it a bit odd,” Ozawa said without elaborating.
The alleged comment, made by an unidentified “senior government official” on Thursday, has reinforced speculation in the opposition camp that the criminal probe was politically motivated to bring Ozawa down.
Earlier this week, Takanori Okubo, chief secretary to Ozawa, was arrested on suspicion of taking corporate donations from the Nishimatsu-linked groups, a charge Ozawa has repeatedly denied.
“I have been saying that this arrest does not make any sense,” Ozawa said when asked again if he intended to step down over the scandal.
“At this stage, I am not considering the possibility of (Okubo) being charged or being found guilty in court,” he added.
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