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Thursday, March 5, 2009
Ozawa says aide's arrest was an abuse
Prosecutors overstepped their authority: DPJ leader
By MASAMI ITO
Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa on Wednesday flatly denied that his chief secretary knowingly accepted illicit donations from scandal-tainted Nishimatsu Construction Co. and accused prosecutors of "wrongful exercise of authority" in arresting the aide.
Ozawa, who has been touted as a possible next prime minister if the DPJ wins the general election this year, also said he will not quit the helm of the largest opposition force.
Later Wednesday, prosecutors searched Ozawa's office in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, and the DPJ branch office in the capital, Morioka.
The special investigation unit from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office is looking for evidence that can back the allegations against Takanori Okubo, 47, who is also chief accountant of Rikuzankai, Ozawa's political fund management organization.
According to the prosecutors, Rikuzankai broke the Political Funds Control Law by receiving ¥21 million in illegal corporate donations from Nishimatsu, and Okubo is responsible for that act.
Ozawa told reporters that any suspicions about Okubo were groundless.
"I myself have nothing to feel guilty about, and my secretary's actions are in accordance with the law and everything has been filed and submitted legally and properly," Ozawa said. "Okubo has been arrested, but I believe he will be cleared of suspicion in the near future."
The DPJ leader harshly criticized prosecutors, who he said "went beyond their usual investigation" in the runup to the next general election, which must be called by the end of September.
"I think it is an extremely unfair exercise of government power from a legal and political (stance)," he said.
The government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party have responded cautiously to the scandal. According to media reports, the two Nishimatsu-related political groups also allegedly donated to key LDP lawmakers, including one of Aso's Cabinet ministers.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura chastised Ozawa and DPJ lawmakers for crying foul over the investigation and arrest.
"The prosecutors made the arrest based on the law and evidence . . . and I find it extremely difficult to understand" Ozawa's criticism, Kawamura told reporters.
"But because it is an issue of political funds, it is very important for us politicians to increase transparency over the political funds and ensure the people's trust in politics."
Rikuzankai allegedly accepted illegal corporate donations from Nishimatsu through two political groups headed by ex-Nishimatsu officials.
The political funds law bans corporate donations except to political parties or groups that manage their political funds. It is also illegal to make donations under the name of another person or body.
Ozawa admitted accepting donations from the two political groups that were headed by ex-Nishimatsu officials, but claimed he was unaware they came from the contractor.
"My secretary told me these political organizations offered donations, so it was decided that my political funds management group would accept them," Ozawa said. "It is my understanding that (accepting the donations) was a completely reasonable and natural thing to do."
But if the money turns out to be tainted, Ozawa said he will return the full amount.
Ozawa repeatedly stressed that the income and expenditures of his political organization have been fully disclosed and neither he nor his aide granted favors to Nishimatsu.
Ozawa added that had he known the money was from Nishimatsu, he simply would have redirected it to his party, which would have constituted a legitimate donation.
As a general rule, lawmakers don't make a habit of checking the sources of donations, Ozawa said.
"In general, based on common sense, I think most (lawmakers) don't ask or investigate where the money is coming from if someone offers a donation," Ozawa said.
Prior to the news conference, DPJ executives, who gathered at party headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, agreed to stand behind Ozawa.
"It is not an issue about having him continue as leader or not," Azuma Koshiishi, chair of the DPJ's Upper House caucus, said after the meeting. "It is not like (Ozawa) did anything legally or politically wrong."
Information from Kyodo added