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Finance Ministry's quick disposal of docs on shady land deal raises questions

The words "five years" are seen on one of the papers recently released by the Finance Ministry, which suggest that the documents need to be retained for that period. (Mainichi)

Following the recent disclosure of government documents relating to the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned land lot to Moritomo Gakuen, questions have arisen as to why the Finance Ministry set a retention period of less than one year for the documents and then discarded them while the storage period for less-important in-house papers remains set at five years.

The ministry on Feb. 9 released 20 sets of documents linked to the murky land sale, whose retention period was set at five years. Finance Minister Taro Aso explained that they were "internal documents." Experts specializing in records and archives management, however, remained critical, with one saying, "Why is the storage period for negotiation records that contain far more crucial matters shorter than that for internal documents?"

The 20 sets of paperwork, totaling some 320 pages, were created at the ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau between August 2013 and April 2015, when Moritomo Gakuen was negotiating a lease of the plot in question. The documents record inquiries made by a department at the bureau in charge of the negotiations about possible legal problems that could arise from the talks with Moritomo, as well as responses from the legal department at the bureau to those questions. The paperwork also records the requests by Moritomo.

At a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 9, Finance Minister Aso said the newly disclosed documents "are documents of legal consultations held within the Kinki Local Finance Bureau over legal points of contention, and are not records of negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen."

A retention period of "five years" is printed on the newly released documents. Lawyer Hiroshi Miyake, a member of the government's Public Records and Archives Management Commission, pointed out, "If the retention period for 'internal documents' is set at five years, why is the period for the negotiation records set at less than a year?"

Under the ministry's rules for the management of administrative documents, the storage period for "documents recording the decision-making processes on revenue and expenditures" is set at five years.

"Because the negotiation records are related to the land sale contract, they constitute 'documents recording the decision-making processes,'" Miyake noted. "Such documents cannot be discarded just because the contract has been concluded. The ministry deserves to be accused of possibly inflicting damage on (the availability of) public documents."

During the lower house budget panel session on Feb. 14, Aso said, "As a rule, negotiation records are supposed to be retained for no more than a year, and officials just abided by this. There was nothing illegal about it."

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