Tax chief exits as ministry suicide casts pall over Moritomo land scandal

Kyodo, Staff Report

The head of the National Tax Agency resigned Friday in connection with the sweetheart land deal given to an Osaka-based school operator in 2016 that has been linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife. The de facto sacking of Nobuhisa Sagawa, approved by the Cabinet, was announced as opposition lawmakers resumed their offensive against Abe’s government.

Speaking to reporters, Sagawa said he decided to resign for stalling Diet deliberations.

The shady deal with Moritomo Gakuen is drawing even heavier fire in light of a recent media report that accused the government of tampering with documents related to the sale.

Since Sagawa headed the division that was in charge of the documents when they were submitted to the Diet, he said he feels especially responsible for causing confusion.

“I apologize for resigning from the post during the annual tax return season,” Sagawa said.

Before the announcement, Finance Minister Taro Aso appeared at a news conference to state that he was not thinking of resigning from his post as finance chief.

Sagawa has been under fire for allegedly making false remarks in the Diet last year in regard to the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen when he was director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau.

Sagawa denied prior talks had taken place with Moritomo Gakuen over the price of the land and testified in the Diet that the ministry had discarded the related documents.

The opposition camp accused him of giving false testimony after discovering internal documents and audio data believed to be recordings of the negotiations.

As for the alleged document tampering, Aso said he has instructed his officials to look into whether the ministry has the documents in question and to report back by next week.

In a related development, investigative sources confirmed Friday that a bureaucrat involved in the deal had committed suicide. They said he left a written message.

The man, from the Finance Ministry’s Kinki regional bureau, was found dead Wednesday at his home in Kobe, the sources said.

“It is very unfortunate,” Aso said.

He said he was informed of the official’s death on Thursday but emphasized that he does not know the details.

Asked whether the ministry intends to look into the connection between the official’s death and the Moritomo land deal, Aso declined to comment.

The Kinki official belonged to the department that was in charge of the land deal in Osaka last February, when the scandal broke.

The 8,770-sq.-meter plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, appraised at ¥956 million, was sold to school chain Moritomo Gakuen in June 2016 for about ¥134 million ($1.26 million) so it could build a new school. The deal became the center of favoritism allegations linked to Abe.The ministry said it granted the heavy discount to offset the cost of removing buried waste at the site. But the Board of Audit of Japan said in November the discount happened as the price was not properly calculated.

Government officials are suspected of slashing the price because Abe’s wife, Akie, had been appointed honorary principal of the envisioned school. She later stepped down.

After the Asahi Shimbun newspaper published a report accusing the government of tampering with documents related to the sale, opposition parties demanded it submit the original documents for comparison.

But the ministry on Thursday released what are essentially the same documents as those previously disclosed and refused to clarify whether they were altered.

Moritomo Gakuen, which was headed by Yasunori Kagoike, had also sought donations while referring to the school as the “elementary school in honor of Shinzo Abe,” prompting the prime minister to lodge a protest for using his name without permission.

Moritomo Gakuen is also known for forcing pupils to recite a 19th century Imperial Rescript on Education, which dictates unquestioning devotion to the Emperor.

The Moritomo scandal caused the Cabinet’s approval ratings to plummet last summer, leading to his Liberal Democratic Party’s historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Kagoike and his wife Junko have been indicted on unrelated subsidy fraud charges.