• Kyodo

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The head of a school operator at the center of cronyism allegations involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied on Tuesday having met with the prime minister regarding a project to open a school of veterinary medicine in a special deregulation zone.

“I have no memory and there are no records” of such a meeting with Abe, said Kotaro Kake, a longtime friend of the prime minister who heads Kake Gakuen, at his first news conference since the allegations surfaced.

He apologized for what he called a mix-up that saw a school official claim a meeting did take place between the two. Based on information provided by the school’s secretary-general, Yoshihito Watanabe, the Ehime Prefectural Government said in a document submitted to the Diet in May that Kake met with Abe to discuss the opening of a veterinary school before it received government approval.

According to the document, the meeting took place on Feb. 25, 2015 — nearly two years before the government endorsed the project on Jan. 20, 2017. Abe has said he only learned about the project the day the government approved it.

Watanabe, however, told Kake that he made up the meeting in order “to push forward” the project, according to the school chief. Watanabe visited the Ehime Prefectural Government offices on May 26 and apologized for giving the incorrect statement.

As disciplinary measures for violating compliance protocols, Kake said he and Watanabe will take pay cuts.

“(The prime minister and I) have been confidants for decades but we only meet on the basis that we do not talk about our work. I believe he is not interested in (my business),” Kake said.

Education ministry documents leaked last year stated that Cabinet Office officials used phrases such as “what the highest level of the prime minister’s office has said” and “in line with the prime minister’s wishes” when explaining the veterinary school project.

Opposition parties have asked the prime minister to clarify his position, and Abe has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on Kake’s news conference, saying that the matter only concerns correspondence between the school and local authorities.

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