The Foreign Ministry is embroiled in another fraud scandal. Earlier this week police arrested two ministry bureaucrats on charges of receiving illegal refunds from a limousine company during last year’s G8 summit in Kyushu and Okinawa. Investigators say most of the money — which was obtained through the padding of limo expenses — was used for personal gains.
At the time, Mr. Hiromu Kobayashi was in charge of financial and administrative affairs concerning summit preparations in his capacity as assistant director in the Office of the Director General for General Affairs in the Economic Affairs Bureau. By chance or not, he once worked under the ministry’s former logistics chief, Mr. Katsutoshi Matsuo, who was indicted earlier this year for embezzling hundreds of millions of yen from a secret government fund. This, along with other allegations of financial wrongdoing, suggests that corruption is a deep-seated malaise plaguing the ministry.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said the latest incident could be part of wider embezzlement scandals involving the slush fund and stressed the need to tighten discipline in the ministry. We cannot agree more. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department should carry out a thorough investigation to unravel the whole truth. The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, must conduct its own probe to find out why and how such a massive padding of taxi bills occurred, apparently with the knowledge of many others both inside and outside the organization. Of course, the ministry must fully disclose the results of the probe.
The limousine company allegedly padded bills at the request of Mr. Kobayashi and his subordinate and returned the overcharge — about 12 million yen — to Mr. Kobayashi in the form of coupons for taxis, tolls and other items. Mr. Kobayashi allegedly cashed in most of the coupons, mostly for personal expenditures, and distributed others as taxi tickets for ministry employees going home late at night. Some of the money is alleged to have been spent to cover private wining and dining expenses by ministry employees.
Investigations indicate that this could be the tip of the iceberg of an apparently common practice of padding limo bills during international conferences. The MPD must probe other allegations of fraud to shed light on the entire flow of money, including how the latest incident relates, if it does at all, to the Matsuo embezzlement case.
Mr. Matsuo, who was the No. 2 man in charge of preparations for the Kyushu-Okinawa summit, is charged with swindling 500 million yen from the government and spending some of it on plush condominiums and racehorses. The amount of money involved this time around is much less, but the recurrence of similar scandals strongly suggests a pattern of corruption: Foreign Ministry employees using public money for personal purposes repeatedly, if not routinely.
This is attributed to the ministry’s tendency to keep information to itself in the name of diplomatic confidentiality. In fact, confidentiality has been a major obstacle in the investigation of the ministry’s reported practice of shifting a chunk of its diplomatic fund to a similar slush fund in the Cabinet secretariat. The allegation is that the transfer was an accounting trick designed to prevent the ministry fund from assuming a disproportionately large size, and that the money transferred was set aside for VIP trips abroad and other ad hoc diplomatic expenses.
Corruption in government is almost always the result of lack of discipline and transparency. An organization that cannot make itself fully accountable to the public is prone to corruption and decay. The recent spate of money scandals and internal disputes involving the Foreign Ministry has seriously undermined public confidence in the nation’s diplomatic service.
Obviously, the ministry must reorganize itself so that it can devote itself to its primary mission of diplomacy. As a first step, it must thoroughly check the flow of money involving Okinawa summit preparations. Further checks could uncover more wrongdoing because the latest scandal is, in all appearances, not an isolated case. And the results of these internal probes must be fully disclosed.
The most important thing for the ministry now is to shore up the sagging public trust. For that, it must transform itself into an open organization, one that basically operates in a fishbowl setting. Of course, not everything about what the ministry does needs to be disclosed. Justifiable secrecy is an element of diplomacy. But this should not preclude the ministry from becoming a transparent, trust-inspiring office. As a way of cleaning house, a third-party watchdog body could be created.
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