TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese public utility admitted Friday that 20 of its executives, including its president, received $3 million in cash and gifts over seven years from a former town official in western Japan where it has a nuclear power plant.
The admission underscores the continuing collusion between officials and Japan's nuclear industry.
Kansai Electric Power Co. President Shigeki Iwane acknowledged that he and the executives received the gifts from the former deputy mayor of Takahama town in 2011-2018. Former Kansai Electric Chairman Makoto Yagi, who also was chairman of the powerful industry group Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan in 2011-2016, was also a recipient.
The case surfaced during a tax inspection.
Iwane apologized and said the money was mostly returned.
He said he first met the man soon after becoming Kansai Electric president in 2016 and was given a congratulatory gift.
Iwane said he resisted but accepted it because he was afraid that hurting the influential man's feelings would harm the company's business. Public trust in nuclear safety had been shattered in Japan following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"I was afraid that insisting on returning the gifts would strain our relations and may cause an adverse impact on our nuclear business in the region," he said. He refused to say what the gift was, but said he kept it in a safe and was planning to return it to the man later.
Trade and industry minister Isshu Sugawara called the scandal "outrageous." Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that "As public utility operators, public trust is indispensable. It's a serious problem that they accepted money and gifts in such a murky way."
No criminal charges have been filed, but legal experts said Kansai Electric officials may be guilty of bribery if the flow of the money was premeditated.
Media reports said the money had been received by the Takahama official as a "handling fee" from a contractor at the nuclear plant.
Iwane said the contract between the utility and the contractor was appropriate and that he and other executives were not aware that the money was coming from an alleged kickback.
Such payments are illegal and if Kansai Electric executives were aware of where the money came from, they could be held liable for breach of trust, said lawyer and former prosecutor Yasuyuki Takai.
"As top executives of a public utility that serves as the foundation of Japan's energy industry, they should not have done that, regardless of the criminality of the case," he said in an interview with NHK public television.
Local officials said the former deputy mayor was a powerful fixer who brought two nuclear reactors to the town.
"Traditionally, nuclear plants and host communities tend to be closely bound by money," Kenichi Oshima, an economics professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto and an expert on nuclear energy costs and finance, told NHK.
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