Suspicions of a political money scandal have struck Akira Amari, minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with reports that he and his secretary received money from a construction firm in exchange for mediating for the company. In the Diet, Amari did not give a clear explanation of the matter.
As Amari is also in charge of legislation relating to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact, which is a major focus in the current Diet session, the suspicions will have deep consequences. Amari must swiftly explain the results of his own probe into the matter. The Diet must also work to quickly to unravel what transpired.
If the allegations are true, the issue will likely raise questions over Amari's suitability as a Cabinet member.
The allegations were reported in the weekly magazine "Shukan Bunshun." According to the magazine, trouble over road construction surfaced between a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, and the Urban Renaissance Agency, and the company asked Amari's office to step in. It was reported that the agency subsequently paid the company roughly 220 million yen in compensation.
In return for this, and for mediation over a separate problem, the company is said to have paid Amari and his aides a total of 12 million yen, including in entertainment, with 1 million yen in cash going to Amari himself, and 5 million yen to his secretary.
The construction company says it has provided detailed facts regarding the times and amounts of money, and claims it has proof. Yet the political funding reports for bodies including the party chapter that Amari leads list just 3.94 million yen in donations from the company. This raises suspicions that money may have been donated illegally.
First, Amari must himself clarify whether or not he received the money.
According to the article in the weekly magazine, the construction company is said to have handed over 500,000 yen at the minister's office in 2013 in gratitude for mediation, followed by 500,000 yen at a local office in 2014. During a House of Councillors Audit Committee meeting, Amari acknowledged having met a representative, but said his memories regarding whether he received the money were "vague." The unnatural nature of this testimony is obvious.
Amari said he was "surprised" to hear of the suspicions surrounding his secretary, and indicated that he would confirm what happened. If it turns out that these allegations are true, simply saying "I didn't know about it" won't suffice.
The law penalizing politicians who interfere in contracts for profit stipulates punishments for politicians or their secretaries who receive remuneration in exchange for mediating in the contract of a public corporation. Suspicions surrounding a prominent Cabinet member and his office over favors cast a shadow over the credibility of the whole administration.
Amari holds a pivotal position in the Abe administration, together with members including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and is looking ahead to signing a TPP agreement and deliberating on related laws.
In his statements in the Diet, Amari denied the possibility that there may have been a legal violation in the latest issue, but the kind of explanation he provided will not convince the opposition parties.
Abe's responsibility will also be brought into question. The prime minister has indicated that he will wait for an explanation from Amari, but the emergence of the suspicions when three Cabinet ministers have already stepped down over money scandals deals the administration a heavy blow. Abe should take the lead in clarifying the situation, such as ordering Amari to quickly produce the results of his probe.