- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TOKYO (AP) - Prosecutors charged a top aide to Japan’s opposition leader Tuesday in connection with a political donations scandal, but the lawmaker said he would stay on as party chief and continue his quest to become the country’s next prime minister.

Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, said he still believed he and his aide have not broken any laws. But he apologized for the concern caused by the scandal. Ozawa was not investigated in connection with the case, which he said was politically motivated.

The scandal is seen as a major setback to Japan’s largest opposition party, which is surging in popularity polls and is seen by many as being in a position to oust the country’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election. The Liberal Democrats have ruled Japan for most of the past 50 years.

Hours after prosecutors charged Takanori Okubo with violating of political funding laws, Ozawa told reporters he had received his party’s approval to stay on as chief.

“I’m determined to topple the ruling Liberal Democrats,” Ozawa said at a news conference.

Tokyo prosecutors indicted Okubo on charges of violating political funding regulations, alleging he falsified accounting reports to make it appear as if a 35 million yen ($360,000) donation from a construction company to his boss’ political funding organization had come from separate political organizations.

Okubo, 47, is the chief accountant of Ozawa’s political funding organization, Rikuzankai. Prosecutors say Okubo accepted illegal donations from the construction firm Nishimatsu Construction Co. Ltd. between 2003-2006 and then falsified documents to cover it up. Political donations from corporations to lawmakers are banned in Japanese politics.

Okubo was arrested on March 3 along with the former Nishimatsu president, who was also indicted Tuesday. Prosecutors dropped their case against another company executive who had been arrested.

Katsuya Okada, a Democratic Party of Japan executive, said the scandal “has caused the public’s distrust in politics and hurt their expectations for our party, and we must take it seriously.”

Ruling lawmakers have been capitalizing on the charges to regain support, though several in their own party have also been implicated.

The scandal is “an unforgivable act that trampled on Japan’s political funding rules,” said Hiroyuki Hosoda, the ruling party’s secretary-general.

Despite the scandal, opinion polls show Ozawa, once a powerful kingmaker with the Liberal Democrats who later defected to the opposition, still has more public support than Prime Minister Taro Aso.

If convicted, Okubo could receive up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 1 million yen ($10,200). The construction official faces up to three years in prison or fines of up to 500,000 yen if convicted.

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