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Editorial: Sugawara gift scandal puts PM Abe's Cabinet appointment judgment in doubt

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara has stepped down over allegations that his office gave cash and gifts to constituents. Sugawara's resignation comes as no surprise considering the gravity of the scandal, but quitting the Cabinet alone is not enough.

Sugawara explained that he stepped down because remaining in his position would cause Diet deliberations and administrative work at the ministry to stall, but has not admitted to the allegations. His resignation has only given the public the impression that he is attempting to evade a Diet grilling over the scandal and obscure his accountability.

Sugawara's resignation was triggered directly by a Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine report that his secretary handed condolence money to the bereaved family of a constituent during a wake. The revelation came just as Sugawara was struggling to provide an explanation in the Diet for a list showing that his office had distributed expensive gifts such as melons and crabs to local voters.

It is common knowledge in the political world that giving condolence money to constituents constitutes a contribution banned under the Public Offices Election Act, except in cases where politicians themselves deliver the money. If convicted of such a contribution, politicians lose their posts. Even if a legislator claims the cash gift is permissible because the politician themselves attended the funeral after an aide handed over the condolence money, this is unacceptable. If this practice were to be accepted, it would create a loophole in a Public Offices Election Act provision that bans politicians from extending cash contributions to constituents.

The three-year statute of limitations has already run out for the presents of melon and crab. However, the gift list gives the public the impression that Sugawara's office attempted to buy votes. There are testimonies that Sugawara himself gave his aides detailed instructions on gift-giving. If proven, the allegation could force him to resign his seat.

Sugawara is the ninth minister to step down since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012. Most quit over money scandals or gaffes. Each time, Prime Minister Abe has apologized to the public, saying, "I'm responsible for appointing them."

One must wonder how seriously Abe takes Sugawara's abrupt departure from Cabinet. Suspicions that Sugawara's office gave melons to constituents were reported about 10 years ago. Rumors had circulated within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that the allegations could resurface since before the prime minister's September Cabinet reshuffle.

Abe's obvious belief that his rule cannot be shaken by minor scandals suggests the arrogance of his long-running administration. His reference to "responsibility for appointing" such Cabinet members rings hollow.

Sugawara is a key member of a group of non-faction LDP legislators close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a linchpin in the Cabinet's crisis management. Suga's responsibility for allegedly recommending Sugawara as a Cabinet minister is also serious.

The appointment of Sugawara as economy, trade and industry minister -- the person responsible for handling a scandal in which Kansai Electric Power Co. executives accepted enormous gifts of cash and luxury items from a local government official, as well as export controls on South Korea -- has amplified the public's distrust in politics.

If the prime minister is truly aware of his responsibility for appointing Sugawara, he should make Sugawara provide a thorough explanation of the scandal.

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