Photo/IllutrationMoritomo Gakuen at one time planned to operate a private elementary school on this site in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A panel of citizens has denounced prosecutors’ decision not to pursue a criminal case against government officials implicated in a scandal centered on the tampering of official documents concerning the sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen.

In its verdict released March 29, the Osaka first prosecution inquest committee, made up of 11 lay citizens, said the allegations against these officials were not adequately scrutinized and described their tampering of the documents approving the land sale and destruction of related records as “outrageous” acts that “deviated from social norms.”

The verdict clearly reflects the panel members’ doubts, distrust and anger. Prosecutors need to take the panel’s conclusion seriously and reinvestigate the case with the required vigor.

The panel concluded that it was “inappropriate” for prosecutors to drop the case against Nobuhisa Sagawa, a former director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, and nine other bureaucrats involved in the dubious sale of the public property to Moritomo Gakuen at a sharply discounted price.

The panel’s verdict obliges prosecutors to reopen their investigation into the scandal that has dogged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe because of the school operator’s past ties with his wife, Akie.

One key question was whether the Kinki Local Finance Bureau, which handled the land sale to the Osaka-based school operator, made a reasonable decision when it discounted about 800 million yen ($7.19 million), or more than 80 percent of the appraised value of the land, in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. The discount was based on the estimated cost to remove buried waste from the site.

Prosecutors said the deep discount based on an estimate by a company could not be judged to be unreasonable. But the panel argued that prosecutors should have carried out the investigation more vigorously by taking such due diligence as making a more objective estimate of the cost based on the views of other disinterested companies.

Concerning whether any politicians and their aides were involved in the land sale, the panel claimed that the evidence cited in the records of the decision not to prosecute the officials is not enough to judge whether the land sale was politically influenced. It called on prosecutors to do more to offer a convincing answer to this question.

The panel harshly criticized Finance Ministry officials for doctoring the documents, which involved deleting Akie Abe's name, saying the act represented a flagrant deviation from “social norms.”

Since it changed the content confirmed by the original text, the panel said, the act was an illegal “alteration” of the documents, disagreeing with the prosecutors, who did not bring criminal charges against the officials over this matter.

The panel also rejected the prosecutors’ claim that the records of the ministry’s negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen over the land deal that were destroyed by the officials could not be recognized as “public documents.”

All the arguments made by the panel are in line with the common sense of ordinary citizens.

The panel’s verdict signals the members’ deep concerns about the health of democracy in this nation. They have apparently been disturbed by the possibility that the fairness of the administrative process may have been undermined and that deliberations at the Diet, which represents the people, on this matter were distorted by false answers and falsified documents.

The panel’s conclusion does not force the prosecutors to indict the suspects. If the prosecutors decide not to indict the officials for a second time, the criminal investigation will be over.

But the panel stressed the importance of an indictment, which would lead to the clarification of the facts in open court.

That means the representatives of citizens expressed their desire to know the facts about the scandal and called on the officials to fulfill their responsibility to explain their actions. The prosecutors should take their call seriously.

This message is also directed at the Diet.

With the campaigning for the unified local elections under way, the Diet is said to be in an election mode.

But Japanese lawmakers are facing one big question: Can the Diet say it is sufficiently performing its role as the government’s watchdog when it fails to clarify the facts about the suspicious land sale to Moritomo Gakuen?

The Moritomo scandal has raised important questions that directly touch the very foundation of democracy. All the people involved should remember this.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 31