Photo/IllutrationMoritomo Gakuen scrapped its plan to open this elementary school in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, after scandal erupted. (Keigo Nagai)

OSAKA--Prosecutors have obtained a recording of a Finance Ministry official telling a school operator about efforts to reduce the sales price of state-owned land “closer to zero” as requested, sources said.

The former director of the school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, and his wife have already been indicted on fraud charges in connection with their businesses in Osaka Prefecture.

Now, with the audio recording in hand, the Special Investigation Department of the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office is expected to intensify its probe into whether central government officials committed breach of trust resulting in financial damages to the state, the sources said Sept. 11.

The Asahi Shimbun acquired the same audio data from nonfiction writer Tamotsu Sugano.

The audio recording was made after two officials of the ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau visited a Moritomo-run kindergarten in Osaka’s Yodogawa Ward in mid-May 2016. There, they discussed the sale of 8,770 square meters of state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, with Yasunori Kagoike, then head director of Moritomo, and his wife, Junko.

The school operator had planned to build an elementary school on the plot, whose appraised value was 956 million yen ($8.7 million). Kagoike apparently wanted a discount--a very steep one.

Kagoike is believed to have used his connections to first lady Akie Abe in trying to bring down the price of the land. The first lady, in fact, had been named honorary principal at the planned elementary school.

“We are now working to reduce the sales price closer to zero as you are hoping for,” one of the bureau officials told Kagoike, according to the data.

However, the official pointed out that the government had already removed contaminated soil from the land in 2015 on behalf of Moritomo and paid 132 million yen for the job.

He told Kagoike that the government could not lower the sales price below that amount, the recording showed.

The official also said that Kagoike and his wife could pay for the land in 10 installments, although such a payment system was unprecedented.

On June 20, 2016, the government sold the state-owned land to Moritomo for 134 million yen, or 14 percent of the appraised value.

The discount came mainly through deductions of about 820 million yen in costs to remove waste buried in the land. The government also allowed Moritomo to pay the 134 million yen in 10 installments.

Prosecutors on Sept. 11 indicted Kagoike, 64, and Junko, 60, on charges of defrauding the Osaka prefectural and the Osaka city governments of about 120 million yen in subsidies in relation to the operation of the Moritomo-run kindergarten.

On Aug. 21, the couple were indicted on charges of defrauding the central government of about 50 million in subsidies in connection with the construction of buildings of the elementary school in Toyonaka.

Akie Abe vacated the honorary principal’s post at the elementary school after the scandal broke, and Moritomo later scrapped its plans to operate the school. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has denied any involvement in the land deal.