Hiroshima – An aide to an embattled Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker was sentenced Tuesday to 18 months in prison, suspended for five years, for illegally paying election campaigners last summer — a decision that will most likely cost the lawmaker her seat in parliament.
The Hiroshima District Court found 54-year-old Hiroshi Tatemichi guilty of paying a total of around ¥2.04 million ($19,000) to 14 members of Anri Kawai’s campaign staff between July 19 and 23 last year, exceeding the daily legal limit of ¥15,000 each.
In a related move, the LDP announced Wednesday that it accepted a letter of request from Kawai and her husband, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, both at the center of a vote buying scandal in the House of Councilors election, to leave the party, which is led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The 46-year-old will lose her seat representing a Hiroshima constituency once Tatemichi’s jail term is finalized, and the court has recognized the prosecutors’ request for the application of guilt by association to the Public Offices Election Law.
A lawyer for Tatemichi said he is considering an appeal against the ruling.
Asked about the couple’s plan to leave the party, Abe did not directly respond to reporters but said, “Diet members bear responsibility for being accountable regarding allegations against them.”
In handing down the ruling, Presiding Judge Atsushi Tomita of the Hiroshima court said Tatemichi “impaired the fairness of a national election” and that “punishment by fine is not heavy enough.”
The prosecutors had sought 18 months in prison for the state-paid secretary over violation of the election law.
During his trial, Tatemichi admitted he gave “illegal rewards” to campaigners during the House of Councilors election. His defense team argued he should be punished with a fine because he was not involved in determining the value of the rewards and only played a supportive role.
Katsuyuki Kawai, 57, known as a confidant of Abe, stepped down as the top justice official in October, having spent about a month in his first ministerial post, after the scandal involving his wife’s staff members emerged. His close aide, who was involved in Anri Kawai’s campaign, is also standing trial over the case involving the election campaign payments.
The prosecutors, who are seeking to press charges against the Kawais on suspicion they gave cash to local politicians and supporters during the Upper House election campaign, plan to question them possibly on Thursday, a day after the current parliament session ends, according to sources close to the matter.
Lawmakers have special immunity from arrest while the Diet is in session.
During several rounds of voluntary questioning, the couple have denied the allegations of vote buying, according to the sources.