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Hurdles high for applying anti-influence-peddling law over Amari scandal

The investigation into the graft allegations involving former economic and fiscal policy minister Akira Amari has come to a close, with prosecutors ending up deciding not to indict him and his former secretaries. The case underscored the legal limits in holding a lawmaker criminally responsible for such allegations even after his collusive ties with a construction company and his approach to bureaucrats have come to the surface.

The law prohibiting legislators from profiting by exerting influence came into force in 2001 after a lawmaker-sponsored bill was passed into law to prevent influence-peddling by politicians and their secretaries. The law bars receiving rewards for exercising influence by virtue of one's authority over administrative punishments or contracts. However, as the exercising of such influence is supposed to involve, for instance, threatening to raise questions inconvenient to the government in the legislature, there are no precedents of charges being pressed against lawmakers and their secretaries for violating the law thus far.

Upon a request from Satsuma Kogyo, the construction company behind the money-for-favors scandal, a former secretary to Amari met officials of the government-backed Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) on a total of 11 occasions over a road project dispute with the construction firm between 2015 and 2016. As it turned out, the secretary told UR officials, "It may be better if you sweeten the pie a bit more to let the construction firm move out of the district," and "Would you please save (Amari's) office's face?" The ex-secretary is said to have been treated to lavish wining and dining worth a total of over 10 million yen from the construction company, but the negotiations remained stalled.

One senior prosecutor said, "Even if compensation was received, it cannot be said that there was exercising of influence unless a lawmaker made such strong remarks as 'If you don't comply, I will raise a question in the Diet.'" Because the prerequisites for applying the law prohibiting lawmakers from receiving money through influence-peddling are strict, "the law has become one of the politicians, by the politicians, for the politicians," the prosecutor lamented.

Masako Owaki, a lawyer who was involved in Diet deliberations for the enactment of the law as a then member of the House of Councillors, said, "Influence-peddling for the interests of specific individuals and groups cannot be said to be what political activities are supposed to be about, and leads to public distrust in politics. In-depth discussions are necessary to examine whether there are any problems with the content and application of the law."

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