National / Politics

In wake of Moritomo scandal government unveils steps to bolster document management, but external oversight remains taboo

Kyodo

New measures were taken Friday to strengthen oversight of government documents in light of the document-tampering seen in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal that has dogged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Under the new plan, a document oversight body within the Cabinet Office will be given greater authority to constantly monitor documents at all ministries and agencies. Government officials could be dismissed in cases where they alter documents that have already been officially approved.

The government is trying to regain public trust with the new measures after the Finance Ministry admitted tampering with approved documents that detailed the murky land deal at the center of the Moritomo scandal. The ministry punished 20 bureaucrats involved, including the former head of the National Tax Agency. One civil servant who was directly involved in the shady deal committed suicide, leaving behind a note.

But it remains unclear how effective the new initiative will be because it is free of external, third-party monitoring, experts say.

“We will do all we can to prevent (similar document alterations) with a sense of urgency. I want ministers to lead the effort to thoroughly implement appropriate document management,” Abe said at a ministerial meeting.

Among other measures, the government will introduce a training program for senior officials in charge of public documents starting this summer. The ability to appropriately manage such documents will also be reflected in pay and personnel evaluations and will affect one’s promotion prospects.

When approved documents are deemed to be in need of modification, officials have to gain fresh approval to do so. All documents, except for some “special cases,” will be produced, saved, altered and abandoned electronically to leave traces of any changes and prevent misconduct.

The Moritomo Gakuen scandal centers on a plot of state land in Osaka Prefecture that was sold in 2016 at a steep discount to a nationalist school operator once patronized by Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife.

The civil servants involved insisted the discount was given to cover the cost of removing waste buried at the site, but opposition lawmakers and civil groups claim their true intent was to please Abe’s wife — who had been made honorary principal of the elementary school that was slated to open there. The scandal sparked allegations of cronyism against Abe, who continues to deny either he or his wife had anything to do with the sale.