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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Ota downplays flap over funding

Support group paid no office rent but logged ¥23 million in fees

Staff writer

A political support group for agriculture minister Seiichi Ota declared more than ¥23 million in office fees in 2005 and 2006 in its annual political funding reports for an office registered at the Tokyo home of his ministerial secretary, even though no rent money was actually paid.

News photo
On the hot seat: Farm chief Seiichi Ota holds a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

Ota has become the first minister in Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's Cabinet to be scrutinized for his funding management. Similar scandals led to a series of resignations by ministers under Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, and eventually led to the downfall of his Cabinet.

But Ota told reporters Tuesday morning he didn't see a problem and expressed his intention to remain as head of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry despite mounting calls from the opposition parties for his resignation.

"I don't think there is a problem, but it is a matter of a person's viewpoint, so if it is indicated (that there is a problem), I must consider it," Ota said.

The political funding report "has been disclosed for years because I don't think there is a problem. I think that I have secured transparency."

Ota, however, added that he would discuss again with his staff where the best location to register the office would be.

The prime minister said Ota should explain the situation thoroughly, but whether to disclose the receipts or not depends on Ota's judgment.

"This is about Ota's political activities, so he should give a thorough explanation as a politician," Fukuda said.

According to media reports, Ota's support group declared that it spent ¥10.45 million in 2005 and ¥13 million in 2006 on office-related expenses.

News photo
Smoke and mirrors?: The house of an aide to agriculture minister Seiichi Ota in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, is registered as his support group's office, but it is only the aide's residence. KYODO PHOTO

The record for 2005 shows ¥3.04 million in office fees, ¥3.31 million in personnel costs and ¥4.09 million in office supplies, while the 2006 report lists ¥2.47 million in office fees, ¥6.74 million in personnel costs and ¥3.78 million in office supplies.

Ota admitted no rent was paid for the aide's home.

But Ota, who spoke to his secretary Tuesday morning, said he "doesn't remember" the details of the expenditures and promised full disclosure.

"Everything calculated as expenditures has been actually spent as expenditures," he said.

Throughout the news conference, Ota's inability to recall details led to stumbling responses to questions. "I cannot answer right away because I have not been in charge of accounting," he explained.

Ota also said he could not recall exactly when the support group registered its office at the secretary's home in Meguro Ward but said it might have been already registered under the current address before the Lower House general election in September 2005.

As for the personnel fees, he explained that they were for his part-time volunteers, although he admitted he doesn't know how many part-timers are working for him.

The outspoken Ota is known for his slips of the tongue. On Aug. 10, less than two weeks after he had been appointed farm minister, he said consumers were "noisy," a comment viewed as inappropriate for a minister in a Cabinet stressing the importance of consumer affairs.

In 2003 he drew strong criticism after saying that a gang of youngsters raping a woman were displaying their "virility."

When asked whether he intends to resign, Ota said he "cannot understand the question," saying there is no such need. But the agriculture minister's post has seen repeated money-related scandals that led to two resignations and one suicide in just one year in 2007 under Abe. Abe's administrative reform minister also stepped down in December 2006 over a money scandal.

Amid strong public anger, the Diet revised the Political Funds Control Law twice in 2007. Before the revisions, ordinary expenditures such as utilities, office and personnel fees did not have to be itemized, and receipts to back them up were not necessary.

In December, the Diet approved a second revision of the law by obliging lawmakers to disclose all expenses other than salaries.

Under the new law, political organizations related to Diet members must attach receipts for all expenses of more than ¥10,000, excluding personnel fees, to political funding reports and submit them to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry or prefectural election commissions. For expenditures of ¥10,000 or less, the groups must keep the receipts and in principle disclose them upon request.

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The Japan Times

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