The prosecutors’ recent decision not to indict former economy minister Akira Amari and his aides for suspected graft only highlights the shortcomings of the law to punish lawmakers and their staff for gaining financial benefits in exchange for using their political influence to provide favors. The suspicions surrounding the veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who once was a key member of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make a case for amending the anti-graft law, which has never been applied to Diet members since it took effect in 2001, to give it more teeth.
An explanation by Amari himself about the suspicions is also long overdue. For more than four months since he promised to look more closely into the matter and publicly report the outcome during the news conference announcing his resignation from the Cabinet post, he stayed out of the Diet and the public, citing what he called health problems due to a sleeping disorder, until he faced reporters on Monday — and said he has asked his lawyers to resume the probe into the case, while reiterating denial of his own involvement in any wrongdoing. He should not consider the case closed with the prosecutors’ decision.
The Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office last week dropped the graft charges against Amari and his former secretaries that they had received millions of yen from a construction company in exchange for using their influence to favor the firm in its talks with the government-funded public housing corporation over financial compensation. They were also cleared of the charge that they violated Political Funds Control Law for failing to report a portion of the money they had received from the firm in Chiba Prefecture in 2013 and 2014.
Takeshi Isshiki, who was in charge of the construction company’s general affairs, is reported to have provided at least ¥5 million in cash to one of Amari’s aides at the time (¥3 million of which the aide is said to have privately spent without reporting the money as political donation) and ¥1 million to Amari himself, in addition to wining and dining the aides also to the tune of millions of yen. Isshiki has told the media that the benefits were meant as reward for the help of Amari’s office that he asked and received to influence his firm’s talks with the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) for compensation over UR’s road construction project. The firm received ¥220 million from UR right after one of Amari’s aides intervened in the talks with the housing corporation.
Amari has denied that his office tried to favor the firm in its compensation talks with UR, although he accepted that he and his aides received the said amount of money. In dropping the charges, the prosecutors reportedly cited insufficient evidence that Amari and his aides used their influence based on the power of the Diet member to resolve the trouble between the company and UR. A civic group member and a lawyers’ group quickly filed complaints with the Tokyo prosecution inquest panel to review the decision.
The anti-graft law was enacted and introduced in 2001 following the arrest of former construction minister Eiichi Nakao, who was later convicted of receiving ¥30 million from a construction company in exchange for favoring the firm over a public works contract. The law is designed to crack down on members of the Diet and local assemblies as well as their aides receiving financial benefits as rewards for using the power of their position to influence the activities of government officials or contracts involving government-funded corporations.
However, investigation authorities are said to narrowly interpret the requirements under the law to take action — so that they do not act unless it is established that the lawmakers or their aides added outright pressures by specifically evoking their power as Diet members, for example by threatening to take up the issue at hand in their questions at the Diet. No members of the Diet or their secretaries have so far been charged under the law. Experts have long called for either amending the law or more broadly interpreting the requirements under the law to take action against suspected graft involving lawmakers.
In Amari’s case, the picture of collusion seems suspicious enough — the construction company official approached the lawmaker’s office seeking its intervention in the negotiations with UR, the aides took part in the talks, and the money was provided to Amari and his aides after more than ¥200 million was paid by UR to the firm.
Of course merely appearing suspicious does not make a criminal case. But the anti-graft law will not be serving its purpose if corruption involving lawmakers is not punishable unless the influence-peddling is done in clear, outright ways. The prosecutors’ decision not to charge Amari and his aides expose the limitations of the law.