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Critics slam money scandal-tainted Amari's appointment to senior LDP post

In this file photo dated June 6, 2016, former minister for economic revitalization Akira Amari talks to reporters in his home constituency of Yamato in Kanagawa Prefecture. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed former economic revitalization minister Akira Amari as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s Election Strategy Committee on Oct. 2, despite his resignation from the Cabinet in 2016 over influence-peddling allegations.

Prosecutors did not indict Amari over the cash-for-influence allegations, but Amari still faces criticism online for not explaining in detail what happened as he promised he would.

Some people in the LDP argue there is no problem with promoting Amari because he has already been "cleared" by his constituents through his re-election to the House of Representatives last year. Other party insiders insist that Amari deserves the post as a reward for his role as campaign manager for Abe's bid for a third consecutive term as LDP president, which the prime minister won in a Sept. 20 election.

But many voices critical of Amari or his backer Abe can be seen online. "He hasn't explained (about the influence-peddling scandal). He made light of the people," one individual stated, while another demanded that the former minister brief the public about the 2016 allegations. Negative views on Abe's tendency to promote his "friends" and the premier's perceived failure to provide sufficient explanations for his own favoritism scandals also stand out.

The Amari scandal was first reported by the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine in January 2016. According to the report and other information, two of Amari's secretaries were asked by a contractor to mediate a compensation settlement with the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) public housing developer.

The secretaries met with UR officials 12 times, and demanded that UR compromise to "save the face of the Amari office." The two allegedly received 5 million yen from the contractor, and spent 3 million yen out of the funds for private purposes without reporting the money as a political donation. Amari himself received 1 million yen inside his minister's office. Meanwhile, UR raised its compensation offer to the contractor and paid 220 million yen.

Amari and the two secretaries faced criminal complaints filed by a citizens' group on April 7, 2016 for allegedly violating the Act on Punishment of Public Officials' Profiting by Exerting Influence and the Political Funds Control Act. The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, however, dropped the case on May 31. The citizens' group then filed a complaint against the no-indictment decision with a committee for the inquest of prosecution on June 3.

Amari told a Jan. 28, 2016 press conference announcing his resignation as economic revitalization minister that he had requested lawyers to conduct an independent probe, and he would announce the results "at an appropriate time." He then failed to attend the Diet for a long period citing "sleep disorders."

However, on June 6 that year -- six days after prosecutors dropped the case against him -- Amari announced in his home constituency of Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, that he was returning to politics. He explained that his own probe, which had been suspended due to the prosecutors' investigation, would resume. Amari then told reporters at the LDP's Tokyo headquarters on Sept. 14, 2016 that his lawyers "did not find any facts that would lead to a conclusion different from that of the investigation" by prosecutors.

Was his explanation sufficient, especially in light of the public distrust engendered by Amari taking cash in his office? Lawyer and former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara thinks it was not. He says the allegation was a "classic case of mediation for profit," and criticized Amari for his September 2016 press conference. "He didn't make the results of the probe public nor reveal the names of the lawyers who he said had carried out the investigation. The conference was over in 10 minutes," said Gohara, adding that he has doubts those attorneys actually existed.

"Mr. Amari emphasized the fact that the prosecution had dropped the case against him, but the committee for the inquest of prosecution announced (on July 29 of 2016) that not indicting his secretaries was 'inappropriate.' The public will not be convinced" by his Oct. 2 promotion, said Gohara.

"If you can return to power without being held accountable for your actions," argued Gohara, "that means that you can just do anything when you are close to power." He said that the Abe administration, backed by the overwhelming majority of its affiliated lawmakers in the Diet, effectively ignored criticism over the favoritism scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, school operators linked to the prime minister or his wife. "The administration simply remains arrogant," stated Gohara with disgust.

When queried by the Mainichi Shimbun about his accountability over the 2016 scandal, Amari's office responded by issuing the following statement: "We cooperated sincerely with the investigative authorities, and accepted the conclusion that there would be no indictment. The committee for the inquest of prosecution has reached a similar conclusion about Amari himself, and the case has been closed. Also, we requested outside lawyers (to investigate the case) and received a conclusion no different from that of the investigative authorities, and have already explained that in public."

Amari essentially repeated the same defense at the Oct. 2 press conference when his appointment as LDP election strategy committee chairman was announced at the party's headquarters.

(Japanese original by Haruka Udagawa, General Digital News Center)

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