Mar 12, 2018
TOKYO - The Finance Ministry admitted Monday to having altered documents over a discounted state land sale at the center of cronyism allegations leveled at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a senior ruling party lawmaker said.
The admission, which came amid growing pressure from opposition parties, could increase calls for Finance Minister Taro Aso, a key Abe ally, to resign to take responsibility over the matter, dealing a blow to the prime minister, who came back to power in late 2012.
The falsified records concern a deal reached in June 2016 to sell at a heavy discount a state-owned plot in Osaka to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator with ties to Abe's wife Akie. She was initially named honorary principal of an elementary school planned to be built at the site but withdrew after the scandal came to light.
The Moritomo scandal, which first surfaced in February last year and pushed down Abe's support ratings, has drawn fresh attention after a major daily reported on March 2 that the ministry's documents had been doctored to remove descriptions saying the dramatically cut land sales price was "exceptional."
The senior Liberal Democratic Party member said 14 of the original documents were rewritten by the ministry after the revelation of the scandal in February last year.
A senior government official said Akie Abe's name appeared in the original documents but was deleted.
Sources close to the matter have said the documents were doctored between February and April last year as ordered by the ministry's headquarters, and that the names of several politicians were erased in the version later disclosed to Diet members.
At the request of opposition parties, the ministry last Thursday presented to the Diet what it claimed were copies of the "original documents."
But they were essentially the same as documents made available to lawmakers last year, and the ministry refused to clarify whether the papers had been altered as reported by The Asahi Shimbun.
Amid the unfolding controversy over the dubious state asset transaction, National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was formerly in charge of overseeing the state land sale, stepped down on Friday for causing confusion in Diet debate.
He was under pressure for allegedly making false parliamentary remarks while serving as director general of the ministry's Financial Bureau. The documents were altered to make them consistent with Sagawa's responses to Diet questions on the matter, according to the sources.
The state-owned land in question is an 8,770-square-meter plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture that was sold to Moritomo for about 134 million yen ($1.25 million) to build a new elementary school, far below its appraised value of 956 million yen.
Prosecutors are investigating officials from the ministry's Kinki bureau based in Osaka on suspicion of selling the plot at an unreasonably cheap price and discarding negotiation records that should have been kept.
The ministry has claimed the heavily discounted sale price was calculated in light of the costs to dispose of buried waste at the site. But ministry officials are suspected of having reduced the price in consideration of Akie Abe's role at the school.
Yasunori Kagoike, who headed the school operator at the time of the controversial land sale, and his wife Junko have been indicted on unrelated subsidy fraud charges.
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