A scandal involving money and politics has once again rocked the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Akira Amari, minister in charge of economic revitalization, has stepped down over allegations that he and one of his secretaries received cash from a construction company official in return for doing the firm a favor. The resignation of a Cabinet minister playing a leading role in promoting the prime minister's "Abenomics" policy mix and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact has dealt a serious blow to the Abe administration.
At a news conference on Jan. 28, Amari admitted that he had accepted cash on two occasions and that his secretary received 3 million yen in secret donations. As such, it is only natural that Amari has stepped down as a member of the Cabinet. However, his explanation of the scandal at the news conference is far from convincing, as numerous questions remain unanswered.
Amari emphasized at the press conference that he was resigning to take responsibility for the scandal, saying, "My position as a Cabinet member is important but it's more important to discipline myself."
Amari and his secretary are suspected of receiving a total of roughly 12 million yen in cash from a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, in return for using his influence to settle disputes between the company and the government-affiliated Urban Renaissance Agency (UR). The Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine reported the scandal based on a tip by a construction company official in charge of general affairs.
The magazine reported that Amari accepted 500,000 yen at the minister's office in November 2013 and another 500,000 yen in February 2014 at his private office in his constituency. Amari initially said his memories regarding the money were vague.
In his news conference, however, Amari admitted having received the cash and explained that he had instructed his aides to properly deal with the money as part of his political funds. Moreover, Amari acknowledged that he and the company official talked about a dispute between the company and the UR over industrial waste disposal when the minister accepted the second donation. Irrationally, the donations, which were extended on two separate occasions, were dealt with simultaneously, giving rise to suspicions of unlawful practices.
Amari's private office and secretary's involvement in the scandal is astounding. Amari acknowledged that the secretary accepted 5 million yen from the construction company official, of which the aide spent 3 million yen, and that the secretary had also been entertained by the construction company official.
Amari obviously was forced to step down rather than voluntarily stepping down to assume responsibility over the scandal.
UR has paid the construction company a massive amount of compensation over the disputes. Legal experts have pointed out that the secretary's act could constitute a violation of the law to penalize politicians and their secretaries for interceding with government agencies on behalf of businesses for personal gain. It was reported that the secretary has admitted having asked UR about the situation of the disputes, but denied having lobbied to the UR on behalf of the company. Thorough investigations should be conducted to get to the bottom of the scandal.
Amari is the fourth politician who has resigned as a Cabinet minister over a money scandal since the second Abe Cabinet was launched in late December 2012. Abe had made remarks in the Diet suggesting that he would allow Amari to stay on as a Cabinet minister, raising questions about his awareness of the seriousness of the scandal. The prime minister's responsibility over the case is heavy.