In yet another case of political corruption, former Lower House member Muneo Suzuki, who once held important posts in the Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party, has been sentenced to two years in prison by the Tokyo District Court for bribery and other offenses. Significantly, the court did not grant a suspension, saying that “the defendant made irrational excuses from beginning to end and expressed no contrition whatsoever.”
The two-year trial has revealed, yet again, a familiar pattern of money-for-favors politics: An influential politician receives a cash reward from a business that has secured a government contract through his intervention. The ruling states that Mr. Suzuki was given a total of 11 million yen by two companies in Hokkaido, his constituency, in the late 1990s.
The ruling also blames the government, though indirectly, saying that official intervention — known as “kansei dango” (official collusion) — took place. The term refers to the behind-the-scenes practice among public officials of deciding in advance of bidding which company will get a contract. The bidding that follows is reduced to a ritual designed to create a facade of fairness.
The Suzuki case is a sad reminder of how difficult it is to sever the shady ties that bind politicians and businesses. Political intervention distorts the administrative decision-making process, reinforcing public cynicism toward politics and politicians. It is long past time for people on both sides of the aisle — politicians and bureaucrats — to make a clean break with the politics of pork.
Mr. Suzuki was convicted on four counts: receiving 6 million yen from a construction company for arranging a public-works contract; receiving 5 million yen from a logging company for using his influence with officials in the Forestry Ministry; making false statements in his political-funds report; and giving false testimony at a Diet committee.
Bribery was the biggest point of dispute in the trial. Mr. Suzuki denied all charges, maintaining his complete innocence. He even criticized the prosecution for conducting a “politically motivated” investigation to calm the public outrage against his alleged wrongdoing. In the presence of solid documentary and other evidence, however, it seemed extremely difficult to defend his plea.
As for the false reporting of political donations, Mr. Suzuki has been found guilty of violating the Political Funds Control Law. The ruling states that he concealed about 100 million yen in funds raised by his political group and used some of the money to buy a home.
Suzuki allegedly took advantage of a loophole in the law, which allows unlimited donations from one political group to another. This loophole, it is said, is used to move funds under the table. A similar allegation has been made about a 100-million yen contribution from the political group of the Japan Dentist Association to an LDP faction once headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
The government is considering a plan to put a 50-million yen cap on group-to-group donations. The law, however, is said to have other loopholes that make it possible for political groups to keep their donations under wraps. Setting a new limit on intergroup contributions is a step forward, but only a small one.
What is really needed is a complete overhaul of the donations system. Mr. Suzuki was once nicknamed a “trading house of scandals.” An opposition legislator accused him of meddling in various government-financed projects. A typical example given was a Foreign Ministry project to build a “Friendship House” (the so-called Muneo House) on Kunashiri Island, a part of the Northern Territories now under Russian control. Allegedly Suzuki pressured the ministry to limit bidding eligibility so that a company of his choice could win a building contract.
One question that remains is why Mr. Suzuki was able to apply such pressure on foreign-service bureaucrats. It also remains unclear what kind of situation existed within the ministry that invited his intervention. These and other questions have not been fully discussed in the Diet. As things stand, it is possible that a similar incident might occur in the future.
The ruling handed down last Friday, explaining why the court did not suspend the sentence, stated the obvious: Mr. Suzuki betrayed public expectations by failing to maintain the “high level of ethics and integrity” required of a national legislator and a Cabinet member. The trial, however, has revealed a host of systemic problems that may not be resolved even if higher standards of political ethics are established.
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