• KYODO, Jiji

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Tokyo prosecutors have asked former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to appear for voluntary questioning about the dinner parties his political group held for supporters, sources close to the matter said Thursday.

Abe told reporters in the Diet the same day that he had no knowledge of such a request.

Prosecutors have decided to build a case against Abe's state-paid secretary for allegedly not reporting part of the costs of the dinner parties, the sources said.

The secretary heads a group of Abe's supporters that hosted the dinner functions on the eve of the government-sponsored annual cherry blossom-viewing parties, according to the sources.

The total bills for the parties held at two hotels in Tokyo exceeded ¥20 million over a five-year period through last year, far higher than the amount collected from attendees — many of whom were voters in Abe's constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The prosecutors are investigating the case as a possible violation of the Political Funds Control Act.

They have found that the amount covered by the group totaled more than ¥9 million, said the sources. But the secretary did not properly record the expenditure in the group's reports on political funds.

Banquet attendees were charged ¥5,000 each, even though such events at the five-star hotels normally cost approximately ¥11,000 or more per head. About 800 people went to the 2019 event.

Receipts from the hotels indicate that Abe's office covered the shortfall, according to the sources.

Abe, who became the country's longest-serving prime minister before stepping down in September, has denied any wrongdoing after the scandal came to light in November last year.

Since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was chief Cabinet secretary under Abe, unfolding developments could blow back on the new leader.

Suga said upon taking office in mid-September that he would not continue the tradition of holding state-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties.

The annual event, which began in 1952 to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments, came under fire when Abe was prime minister since it was revealed that hundreds of his supporters were invited.

For years, guests at the event were traditionally selected based on recommendations from politicians.

Abe had faced criticism from opposition parties claiming the prime minister has used the party for personal gain. Both the number of guests and the amount spent by the government had been rising under the former prime minister.

On Thursday, the ruling bloc rejected an opposition demand that the current Diet session, which is scheduled to end on Saturday, be extended until year-end.

Hiroshi Moriyama, Diet affairs chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, notified lawmakers of the decision during a meeting that included counterparts from opposition parties, including Jun Azumi of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Azumi demanded that Abe testify in the Diet over the controversial dinner parties.

Opposition parties, including the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party, plan to submit a motion to extend the Diet session to the House of Representatives on Friday. The ruling bloc is expected to turn it down.

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