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Friday, June 22, 2007
Sato pleads innocent to bribery
Ex-governor, brother allegedly took money from builders
By JUN HONGO
Former Fukushima Gov. Eisaku Sato, 67, and his brother pleaded innocent Thursday to charges of taking bribes in 2002 from contractors that had worked on a dam construction project ordered by the prefecture.
The ex-five-term governor told the Tokyo District Court during his first trial session that he was unaware of any shady dealings and could not grasp why he was being prosecuted.
"Being fair and impartial has been the backbone of my political life," he told the court. "I am certain that my innocence will be proved in court in the end."
The prosecutors claimed in their opening statement that Sato and his younger brother, Yuji, 64, illegally obtained 170 million yen from a joint venture involving Maeda Kensetsu Corp. and subcontractor Mizutani Kensetsu Co.
The brother stands accused of selling 11,000 sq. meters of land owned by men's suit manufacturer Koriyama Santo Suit in Fukushima Prefecture to Mizutani Kensetsu in 2002. He ran the suit company at the time and the governor was its leading shareholder.
The purchase was made for 970 million yen, but prosecutors claim the land's prevailing market price was approximately 800 million yen. They allege the remainder was in fact a bribe to the siblings from the two contractors.
Prosecutors allege the transaction was made in return for the governor's help in granting the rights to a 20.6 billion yen dam project to a joint venture in August 2000 that involved Maeda Kensetsu and Mizutani Kensetsu.
Former executives from the contractors have owned up to the bribery charges but were not charged because the three-year statute of limitations had expired.
Sato, who was arrested last October and freed on a 20 million yen bail the following month, denied that any joint venture was given special treatment in bidding for the prefecture's projects.
His lawyers added that the land sale was appropriately handled and that the ex-governor was unaware of the transactions. They also claimed the sale price couldn't constitute bribery because the brother, who was not in public office, handled the deal.
The brother pleaded innocent to charges that include a separate case of bid-rigging on public works projects.
"My older brother never took advantage of his position as governor. He gave his life to his job," Yuji Sato told the court in a tearful plea.
The menswear company owner, who was handed a suspended 30-month prison term in January for vote-buying in connection with the 2004 gubernatorial election, claimed he was never granted authority over bids that took place under Eisaku's management.
The alleged illegal practice involving the Sato brothers came to light when Mizutani Kensetsu executives were arrested last July for evading 1.14 billion yen in corporate income tax.
Isao Mizutani, chairman of Mizutani Kensetsu and considered a key figure in the bribery case, was found guilty in April and slapped with a two-year prison term. He has appealed the ruling and the case is ongoing.
Apart from his alleged influence in local public works bidding, rumors are rife that Mizutani has deep connections to Diet lawmakers.
The elder Sato stepped down from his seat last September after Yuji was arrested for his involvement in the illegal sale of land.
His 18-year reign over the prefecture triggered debates about limiting the number of times a governor can be re-elected in order to avoid corruption.