A prosecution inquest panel concluded that prosecutors did a woefully inadequate job in investigating the dubious sale of state-owned land to an educational institution whose one-time head touted his close ties to the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The decision released March 29 obliges prosecutors to reopen their investigation into a scandal that has dogged Abe for well over a year, which also involves the tampering of public documents.
The Osaka first prosecution inquest committee, made up of 11 lay citizens, said the prosecutors' decision not to indict 10 government bureaucrats in connection with the scandal was "inappropriate."
Those officials include Nobuhisa Sagawa, who once served as director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau.
The panel was formed in response to requests filed by scholars, lawyers and other citizens over a May 2018 decision by the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office not to indict any of the 38 bureaucrats at the finance and transport ministries it had investigated for possible breach of trust or suspected tampering of public documents in response to criminal complaints submitted by the public.
One conclusion of the panel was that there is "major significance" in handing down an indictment for an open court trial given the amount of public attention generated by the scandal.
The Asahi Shimbun reported in February 2017 that a massive discount had been given over the sale of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to Moritomo Gakuen, which had planned to operate a private elementary school on the site.
Subsequently, reports surfaced that Finance Ministry officials both in Tokyo and Osaka had altered documents related to the sale after official approval had been given.
The inquest panel concluded that the decision to not prosecute four particular bureaucrats on suspicion of breach of trust was inappropriate.
In the same vein, it also concluded it was inappropriate not to prosecute six bureaucrats on suspicion of tampering with public documents.
Officials of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau discounted about 800 million yen ($7.2 million) from the Toyonaka land value on grounds that amount would be needed to remove buried waste from the site. The land was sold to Moritomo Gakuen for 134 million yen.
A criminal complaint charged that those officials were in breach of trust by selling state assets at such a low price.
However, Osaka prosecutors did not hand down any indictments, having decided the amount needed to remove the waste was entirely appropriate. They also determined that those officials had no motive for intentionally causing damage to the state.
The inquest panel, on the other hand, was not convinced by the prosecutors decision. For one thing, it concluded that prosecutors had not thoroughly examined whether such massive waste removal work was really needed despite the estimate presented by a private removal company.
The panel also said further investigation was needed to look into whether Kinki Local Finance Bureau officials caved in to the asking price of Moritomo Gakuen to cover themselves against any possible future complaints from the institution about the negotiation process.
With regard to the tampering of public documents on the land sale by Finance Ministry officials, prosecutors originally said that erasing any reference to Akie Abe, the first lady, from the records did not fundamentally alter the core nature of the transactions as described in the documents.
However, the panel was blistering in its condemnation of that decision, stating that any tampering of officially approved documents "for whatever reason was, from the standpoint of ordinary citizens, outrageous."
The panel said such behavior "deviated from accepted social practice." It also noted that the contents of the original document contained major deletions.
It said testimony by Sagawa that he never instructed subordinates to alter the documents "was not credible" and judged that he should be held accountable.
The panel was of a mind that ministry officials may well have broken the law regarding the destruction of public documents so as to eliminate the public record of the negotiation process with Moritomo Gakuen. Prosecutors had judged that those records did not constitute official public documents, but the panel disputed that assessment.
For their part, Osaka prosecutors appeared to be relieved that the inquest panel did not go as far as to state that an indictment was the most appropriate outcome.
At least eight members would have been required for such a decision. That in turn would have required prosecutors to review the case and decide whether to issue an indictment.
A second decision not to indict could have been reviewed again by the panel and if it still found the case appropriate for prosecution, the individuals in question would have automatically been indicted by a court-appointed lawyer acting as the prosecutor.
As it is, the decision that not pursuing prosecution was inappropriate only obliges prosecutors to review the case, and if they still decide not to indict a second time, no further appeal can be made to the citizens panel.
One individual who welcomed the panel's decision for further investigation by prosecutors was the 84-year-old father of a male employee at the Kinki Local Finance Bureau who worked in the section that negotiated the sale of state-owned assets and committed suicide in March last year after revelations emerged about the fabrication of public documents.
"I thought the case was over when prosecutors decided not to indict, but now I feel slightly saved by the latest decision," he said.