Ozawa agrees to give unsworn testimony

Don to face Diet panel but timing could open new internal DPJ rift

by and

Bending to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s demands, former Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa said Tuesday he will appear before the Lower House ethics committee to explain his political money scandal.

Ozawa’s acquiescence, which came a day after DPJ executives agreed to vote to summon him to the panel, brought the prolonged conflict roiling the DPJ to a new phase. The timing of his testimony may now become a point of contention.

Ozawa, who faces indictment for misreporting his political funds, has repeatedly refused to give unsworn testimony before the ethics panel, saying he would “prove his innocence in the trial.”

He said Tuesday he wants to appear before the committee soon after the Diet goes back into session next month, on the condition that his testimony ensures smooth deliberation of key bills, including the fiscal 2011 budget.

But Kan told reporters in the evening that Ozawa should testify prior to the session, although he called Ozawa’s decision “great progress.”

“As a politician, I decided to voluntarily attend the political ethics council after considering all the factors,” Ozawa said during a hastily arranged news conference.

He said he made the decision in part because of a strong demand by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the DPJ’s biggest support group, that the party stay united and because he felt bad for causing a public stir.

Kan and Ozawa met Saturday for a second time in talks brokered by Rengo Chairman Nobuaki Koga, who urged the two to reconcile. But no progress was made toward addressing Ozawa’s money scandal amid the calls from various quarters that he be forced to provide sworn testimony.

Ozawa said Tuesday he will offer an explanation at the beginning of the session if opposition parties refuse to deliberate the fiscal 2011 budget in lieu of his testimony before the Lower House Political Ethics Council.

“But if that is not the case, I would like to attend the council as early as possible after the budget clears the Diet,” he said.

Ozawa’s change of heart immediately set off speculation that the offer was a tacit demand for the ouster of his archrival in the DPJ, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi.

Opposition parties have said they will attend Diet deliberations on the budget only after Ozawa offers his explanation and after the two Cabinet ministers are replaced. The opposition-controlled Upper House passed nonbinding censure motions against Sengoku and Mabuchi last month.

Asked about mounting calls for him to quit the ruling party after being indicted, Ozawa merely said, “I can’t say what I would do . . . I have not been indicted yet.”

Ozawa said he conveyed his decision to DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada.

Following an independent judicial panel decision in October that Ozawa should be tried over his alleged involvement in the falsification of financial reports, he faces mandatory indictment in January.

Pressure on Ozawa to leave the party may rise when he is formally charged. This will probably ignite further internal conflict between supporters of Ozawa and Kan.

The anti-Ozawa camp reportedly wants Ozawa and his disciples out of the DPJ so the Kan administration can steer its way through the divided Diet.