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Gov't fails to clear suspicions in lingering Moritomo Gakuen scandal

The government has attempted to draw the curtain on the scandal over school operator Moritomo Gakuen's acquisition of state-owned property and deny involvement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife in the case. But accounts by government officials during a March 24 Diet meeting have failed to clear suspicions of a link between the school operator and Japan's first lady.

The focal point of the debate at the March 24 House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting was a document composed by Saeko Tani, a prime minister's office staffer assigned to assist Prime Minister Abe's wife, Akie. The document was faxed to Moritomo Gakuen after Yasunori Kagoike, chairman of the school operator, made inquiries in a letter to Tani about the property in the Osaka Prefecture city of Toyonaka.

The government emphasized that Akie had nothing to do with the inquiry and Tani's action was something that any public official would generally take. Cabinet Secretariat Councillor Eiji Habu told the upper house committee meeting that Tani "made inquiries with related departments about a question asked by a person she came to know through work, got answers (from those departments) and provided information." Habu added, "She handled the case in a careful manner and her action poses no problem."

Opposition lawmakers fired back at Habu's comments, with the Democratic Party's Tetsuro Fukuyama saying, "Mr. Kagoike would not have even sent a letter (to Tani) if she weren't an aide to the prime minister's wife." Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party asked, "Do central government agencies compile a document to give answers to any inquiries made by regular citizens anytime, anywhere like this?"

Financial Bureau Director-General Nobuhisa Sagawa defended government officials' handling of the case, saying, "With regard to the sale of state-owned property, numerous inquiries are made by regular members of the public. Government officials respond to each question in a sincere manner." Koike, however, argued that government agencies usually pay no attention to inquiries made by regular citizens or opposition lawmakers.

The government has up to this point reiterated the position that records of contact between government agencies and Moritomo Gakuen personnel have been discarded, while claiming during the Diet meeting that Tani personally composed the fax message and kept it herself.

Koike raised questions about the government's past claims, saying, "They have been saying they discarded everything, but now this (Tani's fax message) has turned up." He added, "Saying that she had 'personally kept the document' is typical of the responsibility-shifting seen when politicians blame their secretaries (over scandals)."

The opposition also raised questions about the statement included in Tani's fax message regarding the cost of waste removal at the site in Toyonaka covered by Moritomo Gakuen, which said the refund to the school operator was being "arranged within the framework of fiscal 2016 budget." In fact, the state paid around 132 million yen to Moritomo Gakuen in April 2016.

Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party underscored the swiftness of the government's payment to the school operator.

"It was quickly made. The (fiscal 2016) budget was passed on March 29 (2015) and the payment was made on April 6 (that same year,)" she said.

In response, Finance Minister Taro Aso stated, "The waste removal work was done in fiscal 2015 and because it was difficult to pay the school operator within the same fiscal year, the handling of the case continued in fiscal 2016. It's not unusual."

With regard to the waste removal cost, it has been learned that Kagoike and his wife negotiated with related agencies including the Kinki Local Finance Bureau in January 2016.

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