Lower House member Muneo Suzuki was arrested Wednesday on charges of receiving 5 million yen in cash from a Hokkaido lumber company in August 1998 when he was the deputy chief Cabinet secretary. According to investigators, Mr. Suzuki is charged with accepting a bribe in return for working on Forestry Agency officials to “take care of the firm” so that it could get logging contracts for national forests.
Diet members normally enjoy immunity from arrest while the Diet is in session. But, in an unusually fast move Tuesday and Wednesday, responding to a request from Tokyo prosecutors, the government sought Diet permission to have Mr. Suzuki arrested on bribery charges, and the Lower House acted promptly to approve his arrest.
In recent months, Mr. Suzuki has been linked to other corruption scandals involving his aide and others, but there has been little evidence to support allegations of his direct involvement. For instance, he allegedly played a role in a government-funded construction project on Kunashiri Island, a part of the disputed Northern Territories. Those directly involved, including his aide, have been arrested, but no charges have been brought against Mr. Suzuki himself.
This time around, however, prosecutors singled him out for criminal prosecution, evidently determined to bring a lawbreaking legislator to trial. Mr. Suzuki, they say, received the cash from the company, Yamarin, soon after it was barred from bidding on contracts because of illegal logging in state-owned forests. Their judgment, based on evidence obtained from company officials, is that the money was a bribe, not a donation. Yamarin is a longtime supporter of the former Liberal Democratic Party legislator in his Hokkaido constituency.
Criminality in previous corruption scandals involving Diet members hinged on whether the money they had received was a bribe or not. Those indicted tried to escape conviction by denying the illegality of the cash they had been given. Mr. Suzuki reportedly also insisted that the payment from Yamarin was a donation, not a bribe.
Reports, though, say he regularly received donations from the company. It is hard to believe his claim that the money in question was a bona fide contribution. Considering the close ties that existed between him and Yamarin, it is very likely that he used his political influence to pressure the Forestry Agency to help a key corporate supporter in his district.
Mr. Suzuki allegedly returned most of the money — 4 million yen — to the company after it was searched by investigators for evidence of unauthorized logging. He is also said to have requested agency officials to “do something” for the firm after its bidding ban was lifted. This alone seems to leave little doubt that he had taken a bribe.
Mr. Suzuki is the 19th Diet member to be denied constitutional immunity from arrest since the end of World War II. The last time an arrest warrant was sought during a Diet session was in 1998, when the late Mr. Shokei Arai of the Liberal Democratic Party committed suicide just before a Lower House plenary vote on the request to permit his arrest. That public prosecutors sought to arrest Mr. Suzuki while the legislature is in session suggests strongly that they are confident about their ability to build a case against him.
The government, meanwhile, should reflect on the allegations that Mr. Suzuki received the money in his office at the prime minister’s official residence. This indicates that bribery took place at the command center of the government and that the corrupt ties that bind politics and money run deep.
The Diet, for its part, met public expectations by acting quickly to give a green light to the arrest of Mr. Suzuki. But it must be pointed out that the Diet has yet to vote on a resolution calling for Mr. Suzuki’s resignation from the Diet. Indeed, the Diet track record on its handling of scandals involving members falls short of meeting political ethical standards.
The fact remains that the Diet has failed yet again to unravel a scandal involving a member, in spite of the fact that it has the authority to conduct its own investigations. That is part of the reason why Mr. Suzuki has been able to keep his seat for so long despite numerous allegations about his wrongdoing.
Now that public prosecutors have arrested him on criminal charges, the question of whether the charges are justified should be left to a court of law. Mr. Suzuki’s arrest, however sad, is a necessary step toward cleaning up money-tainted politics and meeting public expectations for political integrity. Diet members must now explain to the public why they have put measures to strengthen political ethics on the back burner.
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