The Finance Ministry said Monday it is punishing 20 officials, including former senior bureaucrat Nobuhisa Sagawa, for falsifying and destroying documents related to the murky public land sale that has sparked cronyism allegations against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
Finance Minister Taro Aso, facing calls from opposition parties to resign over the scandal, will stay on but voluntarily return one year’s worth of his Cabinet salary.
The documents — totaling roughly 4,000 pages — related to the 2016 sale of a plot of government-owned land in Osaka Prefecture to Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist school operator with ties to Abe’s wife, Akie. The land was offered at a steep discount, sparking suspicions that political pressure was at play.
“The falsification of government documents is unacceptable and extremely regrettable,” Aso said at a news conference.
He denied that the tampering was carried out because of Akie Abe’s friendly relationship with the head of Moritomo Gakuen, Yasunori Kagoike.
The issue has dogged the prime minister for more than a year, sapping his support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ahead of its leadership election in the fall.
The ministry on Monday released the findings of an internal probe that said Sagawa, who was then head of the ministry bureau that manages government assets, did not explicitly order his subordinates to remove references to Akie Abe and LDP lawmakers, but he did tell them it would be “inappropriate” for the lawmakers’ names to become public.
Sagawa also told his subordinates to “closely examine” the documents and rewrite them if there were any inconsistencies with testimony he had given in the Diet.
The 60-year-old Sagawa is no longer a public servant and will have his retirement pay cut, a punishment equivalent to a three-month suspension.
One of the subordinates, the head of the bureau’s planning and administration division, also played a “central role” in the mishandling of documents, according to the findings, and will be suspended for one month.
Some who received the instructions refused to follow them, Aso said, adding that the suicide earlier this year of an Osaka-based official who did take part in the falsification was truly unfortunate.
The probe also found that the prime minister’s testimony in the Diet in February that neither he nor his wife were involved in the land sale — and that he would resign if evidence to the contrary was found — provided the impetus for the officials to begin destroying documents that could suggest otherwise.
Meanwhile, a citizens’ group that has filed charges against Sagawa and other officials asked Monday for an inquest into a decision by Osaka prosecutors last month not to pursue the case due to a lack of evidence.
The plot of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was sold to Moritomo Gakuen for ¥134 million despite being valued at ¥956 million.
The discount was ostensibly to cover the cost of removing waste buried at the site, but it later came to light that the price cut was far greater than warranted by the amount of waste that was there.
In related news that surfaced over the weekend, sources said the Finance Ministry is considering promoting Tsuguhiko Hoshino, 58, director general of the Tax Bureau, to vice minister of finance. The post has been vacant since Junichi Fukuda, 58, resigned as its top bureaucrat in April for sexually harassing a female journalist.