Reports: Japan's agriculture chief apologizes over financial scandal

Sunday, July 29, 2007

TOKYO -- Japan's agriculture minister apologized for double booking expense claims, news reports said Saturday, marking the latest embarrassment for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government ahead of an expected tight upper house election race.

Norihiko Akagi, whose predecessor committed suicide in May hours before he was to face legislative questioning over his own financial scandal, apologized for what he called administrative errors.

The apology comes at a delicate time for Abe, whose party is facing one of the most hotly contested parliamentary elections in years on Sunday. One-half of the seats in the 242-member upper house of parliament will be contested.

While losing the election wouldn't immediately threaten his party's hold on power, a big defeat could increase pressure on Abe to resign.

Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese daily, reported Friday that two political groups connected to Akagi attached the same photocopied receipts to doubly book expenses worth about $1,665 for postage in 2003, when he was a member of the lower house.

One of the two groups is a local branch of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in his constituency Ibaraki prefecture (state), which is still headed by Akagi. The other is his own support group.

Akagi, returning from a trip to China on Friday evening, apologized.

"I am told it was simply paperwork mistakes," he was quoted as saying by Asahi. "I would like to apologize," he said. Other Japanese dailies carried similar reports.

Officials at Akagi's office were not available for comment Saturday.

Falsifying political fund reports can be punished by jail terms of up to five years or a maximum fine of $8,335 under Japanese laws.

Akagi, 48, took office last month, replacing Toshikatsu Matsuoka.

Soon after taking office, Akagi came under fire over allegations by Japanese media and opposition leaders that he reported dubious office expenses totaling $851,000, prompting calls from the opposition bloc for Akagi's resignation. Abe rejected the calls. Akagi has denied the allegations.

Akagi allegedly reported $750,000 in questionable office expenses during the past decade by registering his parents' home as a political organization, according to media reports.

Last week, local media said he had also booked another $101,260 in suspicious operating expenses for another political group in Tokyo between 1997 and 2003, after it had already relocated outside Tokyo in 1996.

On Friday, Tadayoshi Ichida, secretary-general of the Japan Communist Party, called for Akagi's resignation following the latest revelation.

"We must also question sternly the responsibility of Prime Minister Abe who appointed him and keeps defending him," Ichida said in a statement.

Matsuoka allegedly claimed more than $233,400 in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office where utility costs are free.

Amid calls for more transparency for political record keeping, the parliament passed legislation last month which requires lawmakers to attach receipts to their expense reports for expenses exceeding $415.

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