National / Politics

Finance Ministry comes clean on Moritomo land deal cover-up, releases ‘discarded’ documents

Kyodo

The Finance Ministry admitted Wednesday that it disposed of documents to cover up negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator linked to the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that got a steep discount on the purchase of state property, releasing over 900 pages of records it had attempted to discard that detailed exchanges between the company and the ministry.

The latest evidence of a government effort to conceal the shady deal comes less than three months after the ministry admitted it had doctored separate documents to make them match sworn testimony in the Diet by a senior bureaucrat, who stated the ministry had held no talks with the nationalist school operator before the 2016 land deal.

The documents disposed of were part of records detailing negotiations between ministry officials and Moritomo Gakuen, which was offered a state-owned plot of land at less than a seventh of the appraisal price.

According to the ministry, officials at the bureau in charge of managing state assets pushed for the documents to be disposed of because they contradicted the testimony by Nobuhisa Sagawa, who headed the bureau at the time.

Sagawa, who has since resigned, had told the Diet that there was no collusion in setting the price for the land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, where Moritomo Gakuen planned to build an elementary school. Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife, served as honorary principal of the elementary school but gave up the post after the controversial deal came to light in February last year.

Despite Sagawa’s testimony, it was later revealed that the Finance Ministry had offered to negotiate a price before the appraisal process was finished. The land was eventually sold for ¥134 million ($1.2 million), after ¥822 million was discounted, ostensibly to pay for the removal of waste buried at the site.

The more than 900 pages of records from between 2013 and 2016 that were released Wednesday included some recovered from officials who had personally kept copies.

Those records showed ministry officials had been in contact with Akie Abe’s then-aide Saeko Tani regarding the sale, as had the aides of five lawmakers from the prime minister’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

One document shows that Tani made an inquiry with the Finance Ministry twice in November 2015 about Moritomo’s request for a reduction in the rental price for the land. The ministry leased the lot to the school operator before selling it.

As the cronyism allegations against the prime minister have mounted, opposition lawmakers criticized his administration’s handling of the matter, with Yuichiro Tamaki, co-chief of the Democratic Party for the People, calling on Abe to “consider stepping down” to take responsibility.

The ministry on Wednesday also released roughly 3,000 pages of separate documents that it had tampered with, after restoring them to their original state. It plans to publish the results of an internal probe into the matter, possibly within the month.

The former head of Moritomo Gakuen, Yasunori Kagoike, 65, is an acquaintance of Akie Abe and has claimed he was given special treatment in the land sale because of their relationship.

Kagoike and his wife, Junko, 61, were arrested by prosecutors on July 31, 2017, on unrelated charges, including defrauding the central and local governments of ¥170 million in school subsidies. They have been in detention since.

The Osaka District Court on Wednesday decided to allow the couple to be released on bail, accepting a request from their lawyer, after rejecting a previous request in November, the lawyer said.

Their respective bail of ¥8 million and ¥7 million has not been paid yet.