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Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007

Lawmakers leap through law's loopholes

Abe faces call to forge true reforms in face of more shady expenses

Staff writer

The spotlight has fallen again on shortcomings in the Political Funds Control Law after reports of shady expenses by key lawmakers, including two Cabinet ministers, have rocked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.

Abe and his camp must provide more information on how the money was spent and tighten the rules or face a further fall in public support for the Cabinet, observers said.

At a news conference Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki claimed changing the disclosure system would pose "considerable burdens" to political support groups because of the paperwork involved.

"It is a matter to be decided by politicians. Each member of the Diet, parties and parliamentary groups should discuss this topic," Shiozaki said.

But according to Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University in Tokyo, stalling will backfire.

"The cases have made it clear the funds disclosure system doesn't work," Iwai said, noting Abe must demonstrate a true willingness to push for political reforms.

The problems began with media reports that lawmakers had declared enormous "office expenses" in their political funds reports despite having access to rent-free government offices.

State guidelines define office expenses as rent, communications and maintenance costs. Suspicions are rife that much of the money earmarked for such expenses wound up being used for other purposes.

Education minister Bunmei Ibuki, for example, reported 41.46 million yen in office expenses in his official 2005 funds report despite registering a rent-free government facility as his main office.

Agricultural minister Toshikatu Matsuoka likewise declared 33.59 million yen in office expenses, and Shoichi Nakagawa, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, 30.96 million yen. They also use government facilities as their main offices.

Ibuki and Nakagawa reportedly admitted including meals and drinks -- usually categorized as "political activity expenses" -- as office expenses in their funds reports.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which is tasked with enforcing the Political Funds Control Law, essentially lets each lawmaker define "office expenses" however they choose.

This has created a huge loophole in the funding disclosure system. Under the law, lawmakers are required to itemize and provide receipts for spending on political activities; they do not have to do so for for "office expenses."

"The office expense has become something of a black box. (Politicians) can, say, spend more than 10 million yen and yet they don't need to disclose the details," Nihon University's Iwai said. "They have a free hand to spend money without attaching receipts" to their political funds reports.

The recent episodes are not the first time Diet members allegedly used this loophole to hide how they spent political funds.

In 2003 and 2004, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was repeatedly grilled in the Diet over the roughly 5 million yen in annual office expenses claimed by a political group headed by his younger brother, Masaya.

The registered address of the group, called Koizumi Junichiro Doshikai, was Koizumi's private residence in Kanagawa Prefecture. It nevertheless claimed office expenses of 5 million yen annually.

Under questioning, Koizumi acknowledged in March 2003 that the group did not pay rent for use of his property. Two weeks after Koizumi's remarks, the group moved the registered address to a local chapter of the LDP but kept its budget for office expenses largely unchanged.

Koizumi refused to provide details, despite repeated demands from opposition parties, which suspected the funds may have been used to pay the former prime minister's household expenses.

"You don't have to declare what you don't have to declare," Koizumi said repeatedly in response to demands for a breakdown in his office's "maintenance costs."

Iwai said it would be easy for politicians to improve the disclosure system and clear up public doubts about such spending by obliging lawmakers to submit receipts for office expenses, but efforts to strengthen the Political Funds Control Law have largely failed to date due to resistance from lawmakers.

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The Japan Times

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