It’s about time that former economy minister Akira Amari followed through on his pledge to account for the millions of yen that had been provided to him and his aides by a construction company worker seeking the intervention of the lawmaker’s office in a dispute with a government-funded housing corporation. Prosecutors have begun investigating the case — questioning some of the parties involved and searching related premises. But for nearly three months after resigning from the Cabinet over the scandal, Amari has remained mum — and staying out of the Diet, saying he needed to rest on account of what was explained as a sleeping disorder.
When he left his Cabinet post in late January, Amari denied any wrongdoing by himself and said he was quitting to take responsibility as a supervisor of his secretaries who had received millions of yen in cash and benefits from the construction firm — part of which had been used “privately” by one of the aides — and to avert the scandal from disrupting the Diet proceedings of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He also said he would further investigate the matter, but no word has since been heard from the lawmaker. Since the issue has developed into a potential criminal case, Amari should come forward with what he has since learned — even through an agent if his health condition prevents him from appearing in public.
The scandal was initially exposed in a report by the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. In the January news conference announcing his resignation, Amari confirmed that one of his secretaries received ¥5 million in cash from Takeshi Isshiki, then in charge of general affairs at the construction firm in Chiba Prefecture in August 2013 — ¥3 million of which the aide used “privately” and was not included in his office’s political funds report.
The lawmaker said he also received ¥500,000 twice — in November 2013 and February 2014 — which he considered to be a gift from a supporter wishing him well after his recovery from an illness and congratulating him for gaining a Cabinet position, and ordered his aides to “adequately process as political funds.” Amari denied his office tried to influence the firm’s negotiations with the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR).
Isshiki gives a different take in interviews with the media. He said he provided the money to Amari’s office as a reward for aiding the talks with UR in favor of his firm, and for expenses incurred while doing so. The company had a dispute with UR over a road construction project related to UR’s development of a new residential area in the prefecture. After Isshiki first approached Amari’s office in May 2013, the lawmaker’s aides got in touch with officials of UR, which in August that year offered ¥220 million in compensation to the firm for moving its properties and materials out of the road construction site. Isshiki has been quoted by the media that in addition to the ¥6 million confirmed by Amari, he provided more than ¥8 million in benefits to the lawmaker’s aides.
UR, which is nearly 100 percent funded by the government, has denied that it padded the amount it paid to the construction firm as a result of the talks with Amari’s aides. The public housing corporation, which according to a report had paid a total of ¥287 million in damages to the construction firm, recently said two of its officials were wined and dined by Isshiki between 2014 and 2015 — reportedly to the tune of about ¥1 million. UR says it is not aware that such benefits provided to its officials influenced the negotiations with the construction firm.
The anti-graft law prohibits lawmakers and their aides from receiving financial benefits for using their power to influence contracts and administrative decisions involving national and local governments. UR employees are considered quasi-government officials whose acts can be criminally punishable under the bribery law.
The special investigative squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office searched a UR office in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, the construction firm and the home of Isshiki earlier this month, and also questioned him, the UR officials and one of Amari’s former aides on a voluntary basis.
It’s not yet clear whether criminal charges will be filed against any of the parties involved. But it seems clear that Amari’s office and UR have yet to give convincing accounts of their behavior in this suspicious case.
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