Whether to summon National Tax Agency Commissioner Nobuhisa Sagawa to testify before the Diet over a favoritism scandal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen has emerged as a focal point in the ongoing regular Diet session.
During last year's regular Diet session, Sagawa was responsible for responding to questions from legislators about the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to the Osaka-based school operator as then head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau. Now, the ruling coalition has dismissed demands by opposition parties that Sagawa be summoned to the Diet as an unsworn witness on the grounds that his successor Mitsuru Ota should respond to questions regarding the scandal. However, this is not reasonable.
Firstly, administrative documents and audio recordings of the ministry's negotiations with the school corporation were found after Sagawa left the position. Following the discovery, Sagawa's statement that the ministry had discarded all records of the negotiations lost persuasiveness.
In January, the Finance Ministry released five in-house documents describing the details of consultations between officials at the ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau over the Moritomo deal, and has released 20 more this month. However, the documents are not mentioned in a report about the case that the Board of Audit of Japan submitted to the Diet last year.
Suspicions remain that the Finance Ministry as an organization covered up relevant information. Therefore, Sagawa should provide an explanation to the Diet as an official in charge.
Secondly, Sagawa's explanation of the reason why the government slashed the sale price of the land by 800 million yen has lost its underpinning reasoning.
"We never offered any specific price. Nor did they (Moritomo) mention a desired price," Sagawa had told the legislature.
However, newly discovered audio recordings clearly prove that a Moritomo official demanded that the land be sold almost for free, and that an official of the local finance bureau responded the ministry would try to comply with the request.
Details of the negotiations held between the Finance Ministry and Moritomo Gakuen are crucial to getting to the bottom of the scandal. Ota's explanation in the Diet that what is recorded in the audio data isn't a "price negotiation" but an "exchange of information on sums of money" is far from convincing.
At one point, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie was the honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen was building on the lot in question. Sagawa told the Diet that he did not know she was honorary principal of the school. However, it has come to light that Moritomo officials frequently used Akie's name when demanding a discount on the land price.
Opposition parties have criticized the government's appointment of Sagawa as head of the National Tax Agency, calling it a "reward" for his role in covering up the Moritomo scandal. Sagawa has not even held a news conference since he assumed the post.
Suspicions persist that the Finance Ministry may have done Moritomo Gakuen an illegitimate favor while considering the school corporation's relations with Japan's first lady. It will be impossible to get to the bottom of the Moritomo scandal without summoning Sagawa to testify before the Diet.