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Politics

Abe denies role in cherry blossom scandal that felled aide

Ex-PM says his camp funded supporter events without his knowledge

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with supporters at a cherry blossom viewing party. (Pool phot)

TOKYO -- Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday denied any knowledge of his office picking up the tab for lavish dinner parties held for his supporters in a scandal that has brought charges against one of his aides.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office that day brought a summary indictment against Abe's former aide Hiroyuki Haikawa for allegedly failing to report expenses related to the events in violation of the law governing political funds. Prosecutors had questioned Abe earlier but decided against bringing charges against him, citing a lack of evidence. 

"The accounting was handled without my knowledge," the former prime minister told a press conference, asserting that the matter concerning office spending had been left to Haikawa.

Far from satisfied, opposition party lawmakers plan to question Abe in the Diet on Friday. The Diet affairs representatives from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party agreed on that schedule.

The banquets were held each year at a luxury hotel in Tokyo on the eve of an annual cherry blossom viewing party, with attendees paying 5,000 yen, or just under $50, per head. Prosecutors allege that Haikawa failed to record roughly 30 million yen in income and spending related to the events between 2016 and 2019.

Participants contributed about 11.57 million yen in total, and around 18.65 million yen was paid to the hotel, leaving a gap of about 7 million yen that was covered by Abe's camp. The question was whether Abe himself was aware of this, which would implicate him in a potential violation of political funding rules.

Abe offered little clarity on where the 7 million yen in "cash on hand" came from, aside from stating that he had personally contributed the money.

"Bills for the overall spending, including food, meeting costs and so on, come to the office and are paid," he said. The former prime minister insisted that the 7 million yen was used to make up the shortfall even though it came from his own bank account.

On the question of whether the hotel had sent itemized statements, Abe asserted that his office said it did not have them when he asked and that he was "not aware" of having seen them.

But "if the hotel said it sent detailed statements, then that may be the case," he acknowledged.

Responding to accusations that his personal funds went to voters, Abe stressed that prosecutors had decided that it did not amount to an illegal payoff.

Abe's explanation differed from his remarks given as prime minister. When questioned on the matter in the Diet, he said at the time that there was "no truth" to allegations that his camp had covered costs for the event, stating that there had been no income or spending whatsoever related to the supporters group and thus no need for a report.

"Each individual came to Tokyo at their own expense and paid the hotel directly," he said.

Abe corrected these comments Thursday and apologized for the discrepancies, while asserting that his understanding at the time was that the costs had been covered by the 5,000 yen payments.

Abe said he "feels responsible for the false statements on the matter current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made" as Abe's chief cabinet secretary, and said he called Suga to apologize.

The former prime minister also faces questions about the cherry blossom parties themselves. Opposition lawmakers accused Abe of using the events as taxpayer-funded rewards for supporters, as many of those invited were voters from his home constituency of Yamaguchi Prefecture. The shredding of the guest list for the 2019 event further fueled suspicions.

Abe avoided a question on whether to reopen an investigation into the shredded guest list, saying he is "in no position to order a new investigation" as he is no longer head of government. Abe remains a member of the lower house.

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