Abuse of ministry subsidy program reveals shocking lack of ethics

While many businesses were struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 relief money was allegedly stolen by bureaucrats of the ministry that is in charge of the funds to help these companies. This is a despicable act that undermines public trust in government ministries and agencies.

Two young fast-track bureaucrats at the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry have been arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department on suspicion of defrauding the government of about ¥5.5 million in rent support subsidies provided to struggling businesses.

It is alleged that the two fraudulently received benefits through a shell company that existed in name only by forging such documents as tax returns and sales records. They allegedly used the money to buy luxury watches and brand-name items, among other purposes.

Investigative authorities must do their utmost to ascertain the details of what happened, such as the motive and background of the incident.

The two suspects worked in key sections of the ministry that deal with such tasks as the formulation of the government’s growth strategy. They were high school classmates, and allegedly even consulted with each other about destroying evidence during working hours at the ministry. The decline in discipline among bureaucrats is simply horrible to see.

Industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama apologized, saying: “This is outrageous behavior. I deeply apologize.” It is essential for the ministry to conduct a thorough investigation and take measures to prevent a recurrence.

The ministry started the system to provide rent subsidies in July last year, to help eating and drinking establishments and other businesses that have struggled to pay their rent due to sharply lower sales as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The two suspects were not directly involved with the rent support subsidy system, but for them to have been well aware of the system and illicitly received benefits would be truly heinous.

A number of cases involving the fraudulent receipt of benefits meant to help small and midsize companies continue operating, assistance that was provided before the rent subsidies began, came to light one after another. Because of that, the ministry had said emphatically on its website that it would “never allow fraudulent acts.”

Priority was given to the speedy provision of benefits, by simplifying procedures in an attempt to help businesses as quickly as possible, and it can be said this was taken advantage of. These acts are a form of betrayal by the members of the organization itself and have revealed an undisciplined organization.

Fast-track bureaucrats, who are candidates for senior posts at government ministries and agencies, play a central role in policymaking and must have strong ethics, ability and discipline. The government must reconsider how education and training sessions for them should be conducted.

Students are increasingly turning away from becoming national public servants. Applicants for examinations for career-track positions fell by 40% this spring compared with fiscal 2012. An increasing number of national civil servants are also said to be quitting their jobs not long after joining the government.

Bureaucrats are said to be less proud of their job duties because they have been severely criticized by lawmakers who misunderstand the meaning of the current politician-controlled policymaking style, and because ruling and opposition party lawmakers have ordered them around in a high-handed manner.

The lack of accountability in a series of scandals in the political arena, even though this is not directly linked to the arrest of the two bureaucrats, may have caused bureaucrats to become undisciplined.

Politics and bureaucracy should work together in a bid to strengthen discipline.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 1, 2021.