Sugawara’s belated, low-profile exit from Diet worsens distrust in politics

Public distrust in politics has been growing due to repeated money-and-politics problems. A lawmaker’s effort to close the curtain on such a problem without fulfilling his accountability should never be allowed.

Prosecutors have issued a summary indictment against former House of Representatives member Isshu Sugawara, who previously served as economy, trade and industry minister, at the Tokyo Summary Court, for making donations in violation of the Public Offices Election Law.

According to the indictment, Sugawara donated a total of more than ¥500,000 in cash as congratulatory gift money and in other forms, and gave floral arrangements, to local neighborhood associations that organized summer festivals in his constituency on 71 occasions between 2018 and 2019.

In 2019, Sugawara resigned from his ministerial post after it came to light that his state-paid secretary attended a wake for a supporter in his constituency and handed over condolence money to the bereaved family. He was questioned by the special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office over the incident. Even after prosecutors decided not to indict him, he continued to serve as a Diet member for nearly a year.

Sugawara, although initially spared from indictment, faced summary indictment this time because the Committee for Inquest of Prosecution decided that the indictment was appropriate.

The committee consists of 11 citizens who examine the appropriateness of prosecutors’ judgments. The committee’s decision this time referred to “the public’s ardent desire” for lawmakers to be clean. This seems to reflect public distrust related to money-and-politics problems.

Sugawara allegedly admitted to prosecutors that he had illegally distributed the cash. He left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and resigned from the Diet this month probably because his impending summary indictment had driven him into a corner. It must be said that he should have made these exits much sooner.

In the past, an LDP lawmaker resigned from the Diet after giving out incense sticks carrying his name to voters in his constituency. Sugawara, who has been elected six times, must have well known the purpose of the law that bans donations from politicians.

When he resigned, Sugawara did not hold a press conference, citing the novel coronavirus pandemic, among other reasons. Regarding the incident, he only released comments, including one that “some of my political activities violated the Public Offices Election Law.”

Sugawara also was questioned in the Diet about an allegation that he had distributed crabs and melons to voters. Because he cannot be said to have fulfilled his accountability as a politician for a money-and-politics problem this time, it is very hard to believe that the public will be convinced.

Among former LDP lawmakers, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who is believed to have bribed local municipal assembly members and others in the previous House of Councillors election, and lower house member Tsukasa Akimoto, who has been accused of accepting bribes in connection with a project for an integrated resort, are on trial. Former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa has also been indicted on corruption charges.

It is hard to say that the LDP has been actively clarifying the truth about these cases, and it has not provided sufficient explanations.

A lower house election will be held by autumn. The party as a whole should be aware that the public is taking a hard look at its lack of discipline.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 9, 2021.