Finance Ministry documents related to a dubious sale of state-owned land appear to have been altered before they were submitted to Diet members for scrutiny, The Asahi Shimbun has found.

Several sources said the documents were likely changed from the originals after The Asahi Shimbun reported in February 2017 that the land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, had been sold at a sharp discount to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Portions were deleted from the original documents, as well as phrases containing such words as “special” and “exceptional.”

Opposition lawmakers had demanded the release of the documents, suspecting the sweet deal stemmed in part from first lady Akie Abe’s connections with the then director of Moritomo Gakuen.

A department handling public assets in the ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau created the original documents. They were used to obtain the approvals of various officials within the bureau and concerned negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen in 2015 and 2016.

The first page of the documents contained the date for the final approval for transactions concerning the land as well as the seals of high-ranking bureau officials. The following pages showed a record of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen and the contents of the transactions.

The Asahi Shimbun confirmed that details such as the dates when the documents were first drafted and finally approved as well as the document numbers and seals were identical on both the originals and the copies submitted to Diet members.

However, large portions in the original documents do not appear in the ones read by the lawmakers.

The omissions included portions of a timeline of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen and information about how bureau officials responded to various requests made by Moritomo Gakuen.

The original documents also contained such phrases as “the contents will be an exceptional case” and “special characteristic of this case.” There were also references to conducting a real estate assessment in response to a proposal made by Moritomo Gakuen as well as the presenting of a possible price to the school operator.

Those terms and references did not appear in the copies presented to lawmakers.

In Diet questioning in 2017, Finance Ministry officials denied that negotiations were conducted with Moritomo Gakuen over the price for the land deal.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that neither he nor his wife played any part in the sale of the land to Moritomo Gakuen in 2016. After the scandal broke, Akie Abe stepped down as honorary principal at an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen had planned to build on the land in question.

Finance Ministry officials have also repeatedly denied that any favoritism came into play.

The Asahi Shimbun asked Minoru Nakamura, head of the Planning and Administration Division within the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, about whether approval documents had been altered.

“The only approval documents that we have in storage are the ones released in response to an information release request,” Nakamura said.

At the Upper House Budget Committee on March 2, Finance Minister Taro Aso said he would refrain from responding to questions about whether the documents had been altered.

In a separate meeting held by opposition lawmakers, ministry officials said they could not go into a detailed explanation because of the ongoing investigation over ministry documents.

Documents that authorize land deals must be kept in storage for a maximum of 30 years. On occasion, these documents are submitted to the Board of Audit.

Altering such documents could constitute a violation of the law covering management of official documents.

Since September 2017, the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office has been questioning relevant officials, on a voluntary basis, after accepting criminal complaints about possible breach of trust on the part of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and high-ranking Finance Ministry officials.

Prosecutors have also accepted criminal complaints about the possible destroying of evidence and discarding of official documents.