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Editorial: Witness accounts needed as audit finds scant reason for Moritomo land discount

The Board of Audit of Japan has concluded that there was little reason to warrant an 800-million-yen discount in the sale of state-owned land, granted to ameliorate the cost of removing waste that had been found buried in the plot.

Of course, this is in reference to the heavily discounted sale of government land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which has been linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife, Akie.

The Finance Ministry and other government agencies had repeatedly explained that the discounted sale was processed appropriately in accordance with government guidelines. In response, the country's accounting watchdog pointed out the possibility that there were insufficient grounds for how the quantity of buried waste was calculated, leading to an overestimate of the waste volume.

The Board of Audit has brought into doubt the validity of the price at which the land was sold to Moritomo Gakuen. Such a suggestion from an independent organization tasked with sniffing out wasteful public spending is not to be taken lightly.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism made the estimate on the quantity of buried waste on the state-owned plot upon a request from the Ministry of Finance. The audit board says it was unable to confirm sufficient grounds for why the land ministry overestimated the rate at which waste was mixed into the soil, or why it determined that there was waste buried 3.8 meters deep across the entire plot. Furthermore, there were no documents demonstrating the validity of the estimated removal fee of waste per ton.

This scandal shows how the sale of valuable land belonging to the entire Japanese public was processed in an extremely sloppy manner. Reference materials used to make calculations and records of sales negotiations had been discarded or were otherwise unavailable. The audit board demanded that the government improve its methods for preserving and managing documents, and rightly so.

Whenever Prime Minister Abe was asked about the validity of the land sale during Diet deliberations, he said repeatedly, "I will entrust the issue to the Board of Audit's probe."

Now that the audit board has released its conclusions, the government must recognize that the sale and the process leading up to it were inappropriate.

Former Moritomo Gakuen chairman Yasunori Kagoike and his wife, Junko, have been indicted on suspicion of fraudulently receiving grants from the Osaka Prefectural Government and other entities. In the process of investigating the case, the Osaka Public Prosecutors Office discovered that staff from the Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau told the Kagoikes that they would "make the effort" to bring down the price of the land plot as close as possible to the price Moritomo Gakuen sought; the existence of an audio recording in which specific prices are discussed has emerged.

The then head of the Ministry of Finance's Financial Bureau, Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was later promoted to the head of the National Tax Agency, had told the Diet that the government had never given any specific figures to Moritomo Gakuen -- a claim contradicted by these findings.

Akie Abe has yet to appear before the Diet to provide an explanation of her involvement with Moritomo Gakuen. Two years ago, she was appointed the honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen was planning to found, and held that position until earlier this year when the scandal broke. The state-owned land was sold to Moritomo Gakuen last year. It's no wonder many have pointed to the likelihood that bureaucrats gave special consideration to pushing through the highly discounted sale.

The Board of Audit's probe was carried out at the request of the Diet. To shed more light on the shady dealings, it is crucial that Akie Abe, Sagawa and senior officials of the land ministry be summoned to the Diet to provide witness testimony.

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