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There is always something very frustrating about Diet questioning of legislators involved in corruption scandals. So it was with Monday’s inquiry of Mr. Fukushiro Nukaga, former economics minister, at a Lower House Council on Political Ethics. As expected, Mr. Nukaga, a Liberal Democrat, denied allegations that he had taken a bribe from the KSD mutual-aid foundation for small business. He merely repeated what he had said before, saying in effect that he is clean. Absent new evidence, grilling by opposition members fell flat.

The Liberal Democratic Party seems to believe that the Nukaga case has been effectively closed now that he has answered questions before the ethics panel. The fact is he has told nothing new about his alleged ties to KSD. The panel has done a poor job of investigating the case, in part because it has no authority to obtain testimony under oath. The Diet should call Mr. Nukaga as a sworn witness and find out what kind of role he had played in the money-for-favors scandal.

Mr. Nukaga is only one among various politicians accused or suspected of using political influence on behalf of KSD. Already a former LDP Upper House legislator, Mr. Takao Koyama, has been arrested. And a former LDP Upper House leader, Mr. Masakuni Murakami, had to resign from the Diet. The two men have received a lot of media attention, but Mr. Nukaga is no less important a figure in the widening corruption scandal.

Mr. Nukaga is said to have received a total of 15 million yen from KSD on two occasions, in November 1999 and in April 2000. The question that remains is how and why the money changed hands. Mr. Nukaga told the inquiry panel that his secretary had received the money as a “deposit” but that he had ordered the aide to return it to KSD in May last year. But he did not tell why KSD had given such a large amount of cash, what the nature of the “deposit” was, and why it had been kept in a desk drawer for so long.

It also remains unclear whether the money was returned. Mr. Nukaga said he had confirmed its return by telephone with the then director of KSD, Mr. Tadao Koseki. Beyond that he said nothing specific. He only said, “I did not know my secretary was keeping the money. I swear I really did not know.” Given the suspicion surrounding him, who would believe him?

Mr. Nukaga is also suspected of tampering with a prime minister’s policy speech to the Diet in January last year to insert a reference to the “Institute of Technologists,” which KSD was planning to establish. The 15 million yen payment is said to have been a reward for that. Mr. Nukaga, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, may have been involved in the drafting of the speech. But he denied such a role, saying the allegation is “groundless” and he had “nothing to do with the institute.”

It is unusual for a prime minister to mention a private project in a policy speech. The government offices involved have said, in a clarification to the Diet, that they never asked the Prime Minister’s Office to include such a statement. If so, who included it? Someone is lying.

In this connection, Mr. Nukaga, in an apparent attempt to clear up allegations of his involvement, said the project received favorable attention at an informal meeting of government officials. Both Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda have said that is why it was mentioned in the policy speech.” If that is true, the ethics council should request an explanation from the prime minister.

The Council on Political Ethics, created in 1985 following the Lockheed payoff scandal, has so far conducted an inquiry on two occasions. In September 1996, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato appeared before the panel to answer questions about his alleged role in the Kyowa scandal involving illegal donations. And in June 1998 former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Taku Yamasaki told his side of the story about huge contributions he had allegedly received from an oil trader. In both cases, however, the council proved powerless to unravel the truth. The inquiries were, if anything, a ceremony to “cleanse” the two men of suspicion. If the same thing happens this time, the ethics council will lose its raison d’etre, with its role reduced to covering up the wrongdoings of politicians. To be effective it must be operated under new rules.

The KSD scandal is said to involve some 2 billion yen in questionable funds. Unless the whole truth is uncovered, all the political talk of cleaning house sounds hollow. The current political turmoil should not be used an excuse for relaxing efforts for reform. The Diet and all political parties — above all, the LDP — should realize that the public is turning critical attention to them as it has never done before. At stake is their ability to get things done in ways that meet public expectations.

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