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Official in charge of murky land sale apparently commits suicide

The Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau in Osaka's Chuo Ward is seen in this file photo taken on June 19, 2017. (Mainichi)

OSAKA (Kyodo) -- A government official involved in a state-owned land sale to a school operator in Osaka at the center of favoritism allegations leveled at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died recently in an apparent suicide, investigative sources said Friday.

The revelation comes at a time when opposition parties are preparing to question the government after a major daily newspaper alleged last Friday that relevant Finance Ministry documents have been doctored. The controversial land deal recently drew fresh attention but it is unclear whether the official's death is related to the dubious transaction.

The male official of the Finance Ministry's Kinki regional bureau was found dead on Wednesday at his home in Kobe, western Japan, the sources said, without disclosing other details.

In Tokyo, Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters that he has heard about the man's death.

The Kinki bureau official belonged to a department in charge of the land transaction last February, when the issue first came to light.

The 8,770-square-meter plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was sold to Moritomo Gakuen in June 2016 for about 134 million yen ($1.26 million) to build a new elementary school, compared with its appraised value of 956 million yen.

The ministry has said the heavily discounted price of the land was due to the cost of removing buried waste at the site. But the Board of Audit of Japan said in November the discount happened because the price was not properly calculated.

Government officials are suspected of having reduced the price as Abe's wife, Akie, was briefly appointed as the honorary principal of the envisioned school.

Following The Asahi Shimbun report, the opposition camp demanded that the ministry submit the original documents, which Asahi reported have been doctored.

But the ministry on Thursday released what are essentially the same documents as those previously disclosed to lawmakers and refused to clarify whether they have been revised as reported, citing a continuing internal probe.

Moritomo Gakuen, headed by Yasunori Kagoike, had also sought donations while referring to the school as the "elementary school in honor of Shinzo Abe," prompting the premier to lodge a protest for using his name without permission.

The Moritomo scandal pushed Abe's Cabinet approval ratings sharply down last summer, leading to his Liberal Democratic Party's historic defeat in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

Kagoike and his wife Junko have been indicted on unrelated subsidy fraud charges.


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