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Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Political funds law can stand as is: Abe
New farm chief's expenses defended
By MASAMI ITO
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday the heavily criticized Political Funds Control Law needs no further revision and again voiced support for his new farm minister, Norihiko Akagi, who like his predecessor is under fire over reported expenditure claims.
The opposition camp is linking Akagi with the same kind of accounting discrepancies that plagued Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who hanged himself in May.
According to political sources, an Akagi support group lists its headquarters as the house of his parents in Ibaraki Prefecture. The group has reported enormous office expenses — 123 million yen between 1990 and 2005.
Initially, Akagi's parents reportedly said they were never paid any rent and that their home was not used as the group's office. They later reversed themselves and said the house was the central location for the group's activities.
Akagi also denied any wrongdoing.
"I've heard that he has explained (the situation) sufficiently," Abe said in an interview, continuing to support Akagi just like he did other ministers who became enmeshed in scandals.
Matsuoka had been under fire for reporting enormous office expenses despite using a rent-free government office building that also had free water, lighting and heating. At that point, before the law was recently revised, lawmakers did not have to disclose details of their office expenses. Matsuoka was also under fire in connection with a separate bid-rigging scandal.
Faced with outrage from the opposition parties, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito revised the Political Funds Control Law in an attempt at transparency by requiring politicians' fund management bodies to itemize all expenditures, excluding personnel fees, of 50,000 yen or more, and to attach receipts.
But because the Akagi scandal does not involve his fund management body — for which each politician is only entitled one — but a political support organization, it falls through the cracks in the law. There are no limits on how many such groups a lawmaker can have.
"We all made the rules regarding political funds and what is important is to obey the rules once they have been decided on," Abe stressed, rejecting the idea of another revision.
Since taking office in September, Abe has had to replace three ministers.
Last week Fumio Kyuma stepped down as defense minister after drawing public ire for saying the 1945 atomic bombings "couldn't be helped" to prevent the Soviet Union from occupying parts of Japan. Yuriko Koike took Kyuma's place.
In December, Abe's reform minister, Genichiro Sata, also bowed out over a money scandal.
Abe's Cabinet has suffered a drastic drop in its support rate, which was 65 percent when it kicked off in September. A recent Kyodo News poll put it at just 32 percent.
"I must overcome the tough times," Abe said. "Support rates are like peaks and valleys. (You) should not be arrogant when (you) are on top of the mountain, and when (you) are in the valley, (you) need to hold on to hope for the future."
Faced with public criticism over the ministers' scandals and the fiasco in which the Social Insurance Agency has 50 million pension records it cannot identify, critics said Abe's ruling bloc could see a huge setback in the July 29 Upper House election, possibly losing its majority in the chamber.
Although Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa declared he will step down if the opposition camp fails to emerge with a majority, Abe has refused to say whether he would step down if the ruling bloc loses its majority in the July 29 election.
"Ozawa's declaration over his course of action was his choice," Abe said. When asked to evaluate Ozawa's character, Abe refused, saying "I don't know him well directly because he left the LDP before I joined."
On the consumption tax, Abe said that the government will begin discussion in the fall on whether it should be raised.
Abe comes from a line of politicians. His grandfather was the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and his late father, Shintaro, was one of the leading members of the LDP. He is serving his fifth term as a member of the House of Representatives.
In 2003, Abe was appointed secretary general of the party. He became chief Cabinet secretary in 2005 under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, before being chosen LDP president and prime minister last September.