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Friday, Nov. 20, 2009

Hirano taps secret fund, remains mum


Staff writer

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Thursday he withdrew ¥120 million from the Cabinet's secretive discretionary fund but would not disclose how, or if, he used it.

"It is a fact that I requested the withdrawal. I will be responsible in making judgments and will handle it properly," he said.

When he was appointed as the government's top spokesman in mid-September, Hirano told reporters he was not aware any slush funds existed. But Thursday's admission revealed he had his hands in the ¥1.4 billion cookie jar just days after taking his post.

Hirano, who has sole access to the fund, admitted making two withdrawals of ¥60 million each from the fund in September and October.

He refused to provide any details of how he intended to use the funds.

"I can't comment on whether the fund has been already used or not," Hirano said, adding he needs to study whether disclosing the practice would hinder operation of the Cabinet or the government's information-gathering capabilities.

The Cabinet's discretionary budget, dubbed the "kimitsu-hi," or secret fund, can be used without restraint by the chief Cabinet secretary, who has no obligation to submit receipts on use of its funds.

Past administrations described it as a fund to "smoothly implement" government duties, but former Chief Cabinet Secretary Masajuro Shiokawa acknowledged on a TV program in 2001 that the fund was used to "deal with opposition parties at the Diet."

Before taking the reins of government in August, the Democratic Party of Japan was pushing for disclosure of how the kimitsu-hi is used. It was already rumored to be used in shady political deals.

In 2001, the DPJ submitted a bill that would oblige the Cabinet to record how the fund is used and disclose it to the public. The bill, of course, was scrapped.

But Hirano has changed his stance on the issue since taking office, as has the DPJ. Hirano said details on how the freshly withdrawn ¥120 million is used cannot be made public because it involves other parties.

"I am not completely certain" how the slush fund was operated, Hirano said, explaining that he intends to oversee the account for a year and make responsible decisions. The Board of Audit will check on its usage "when allowed," and the process will not be "completely closed," he insisted.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama supports Hirano's stance, telling reporters earlier this month it "is not something that can be completely disclosed to the public."

He also alluded, as other officials with knowledge of the slush fund have, to its role in gathering information.

"It is necessary for collecting information" and unveiling it will impede national interests, Hatoyama said.

Journalist Takao Toshikawa, author of the 2001 book "Kimitsu-hi" ("Secret Funds"), questioned the DPJ's quick shift in stance.

"The DPJ took over the government promising accountability and transparency" but has lost both by keeping the decades-old practice in place, he said, adding the secret fund is part of global politics, a tool used by many states to take care of sensitive matters they don't wish to reveal.

But Toshikawa added that Hatoyama's team should at least make an effort to expose some of the details of the secret budget, as it promised.

"The excuses put forward by Hirano are identical to those given in the past by the Liberal Democratic Party."



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