Seventeen years ago, following the Lockheed payoff scandal that culminated in the arrest and indictment of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the Diet set up an ethics council in both chambers. In an eerie flashback to that episode, the Lower House ethics panel on Wednesday grilled former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka about pay irregularities involving her public secretaries.
The central question in the hearing, which was nationally televised for the first time, was whether Ms. Tanaka misused some of the money the government paid her secretaries. She categorically denied the allegation but went little further than that. Council members asked sharp questions but received only vague answers. For all the publicity it attracted, the hearing produced no hard evidence.
Most of the blame for that goes to Ms. Tanaka. The hearing was held at her own request, yet when confronted with critical questions she said she was “not in charge.” And when questions focused on details, she often turned to her accompanying attorney for help. Ms. Tanaka, one of Japan’s most popular politicians, was supposedly speaking to the nation as well. But in the eyes of many, she must have looked like a different person.
Indeed, her testimony flew in the face of the Diet code of ethics established at the same time that the Council on Political Ethics was created. The charter says in effect that any Diet member suspected of wrongdoing must do everything he or she can do to dispel suspicions. But Ms. Tanaka showed little willingness to get to the truth, disappointing those who had expected her to set an example of integrity.
It is not just Ms. Tanaka who has failed the test of public confidence. The ethics council, having failed to obtain any substantial evidence, has also fallen far short of expectations. Not only has it proved incapable of protecting the prestige of the Diet and the honor of Diet members in general, it has also created a deep sense of frustration among the public, prompting many to question the very reason for its existence.
Two major questions remain unanswered. First, why did Ms. Tanaka hire employees from her family-run company to serve as her public secretaries? Second, why did they receive less pay than they were entitled to? Related to this question is the suspicion, first raised by popular weeklies back in April, that Ms. Tanaka may have pocketed the difference.
Ms. Tanaka told the council that her government-paid aides had stayed on the company payroll because that was their condition for working with her. That reason is understandable in the sense that quitting the company, however temporarily, would have shortened their period of continuous employment and thus reduced their retirement benefits. The fact, however, is that none of them returned to the firm following their stints at her Tokyo office.
Even more doubtful is the way in which their salaries were handled. Allegedly the money paid by the government was first pooled in a company account and then distributed to them in amounts smaller than the official payments. It remains unclear precisely what happened to the rest of the money. Nor is it clear whether the secretaries have received separation allowances. All of this has thrown doubt on the credibility of the accounting records that Ms. Tanaka has submitted to the ethics council.
There is no evidence to suggest a coverup. It can be reasonably said, however, that her testimony has deepened, not reduced, suspicions. One wonders whether Ms. Tanaka now faces the same fate as those “gray officials” implicated in the Lockheed scandal who languished under the shadow of public mistrust for so long that they eventually faded into obscurity. It would be unfortunate, indeed, if the political life of a talented politician like Ms. Tanaka was cut short by a lingering scandal.
The challenge for the ethics council is to follow up the hearing and clarify remaining questions. With the Diet session scheduled to adjourn at the end of this month, there is not much time left to probe the case. But if the panel calls it quits for good, the pay scandal will continue to fester. So far this year two legislators have already lost their Diet seats over similar affairs.
For Ms. Tanaka, the only way to prove her integrity is to provide more accurate and specific answers. For this purpose she should present more bookkeeping records on related matters, including the flow of cash. The council, meanwhile, should seek further testimony from Ms. Tanaka and her associates. It would be better if she testified under oath. If all this is done, Ms. Tanaka and the council will have done the nation a great service.
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