EDITORIAL: Although legal, TEPCO's ticket purchases are problematic
It has been revealed that Tokyo Electric Power Co. bought tickets to Diet members' fund-raising parties.
For several years through 2009, the utility, known as TEPCO, spent more than 50 million yen (about $625,000) annually to buy tickets to parties organized by more than 50 lawmakers, mainly politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party, according to an investigation by The Asahi Shimbun.
These purchases were not disclosed in the lawmakers' political fund reports because TEPCO limited each purchase to 200,000 yen or less so that they were not subject to the legal disclosure requirement.
The "lawful" expenditures, however, raise some important questions for two reasons.
For one, TEPCO is a public-interest company.
In 1974, the utility decided to refrain from making political donations amid mounting public criticism against corrupt, money-driven politics. The company explained the decision by saying it was inappropriate for a public utility allowed to monopolize the regional power market to make donations to specific political parties or politicians. By taking the step, TEPCO recognized that it must meet much higher standards of fairness and transparency than those required of other businesses.
Has TEPCO forgotten this commitment?
Our investigation shows that TEPCO ranked politicians according to their relative importance for the government's nuclear power policy and the levels of support they provided for its operations. Former industry ministers were ranked high, for instance. The utility used the rankings to determine the amount it allocated to each politician.
It appears that the company provided bigger amounts of money to politicians who served its interest by helping it protect its regional monopoly and safeguard its lucrative nuclear power operations. We cannot overlook TEPCO's spending on tickets to political fund-raisers because that means the company effectively uses the electricity bills it collects from consumers almost like a tax for obtaining political power.
The ticket purchases are also controversial because TEPCO will be one of the major topics for Diet deliberations in the coming weeks.
In a news conference, a TEPCO official said the company's purchases of the party tickets were part of its common-sense socialization activities. The firm regarded the money as "payments for food and drinks," said the official. If so, why doesn't the company disclose the names of the politicians involved and the amounts of money it paid for tickets to their fund-raising parties?
At the same time, the lawmakers should voluntarily disclose the amounts they received from the utility as payments for the tickets.
Although the expenditures are "legal," we demand all these disclosures because we think it is necessary to make clear the relationships--or closeness--between the utility and lawmakers of both camps.
The Diet will soon set up its own investigative committee of experts to look into the nuclear accident that took place at a plant operated by TEPCO and a council of Diet members, which will serve as the supervisory body for the inquiry panel. If politicians who received money from TEPCO take part in the council, the whole undertaking will turn into a political farce.
This issue will also become an opportunity for the people to cast a critical eye on politicians who have sold their party tickets to other electric power companies.
The public will be unwilling to support any new energy policy worked out while the facts concerning these flows of funds from utilities to politicians remain unclear.
Many Japanese are now taking a very critical view of both politicians and electric utilities. Now is the time for them to shape up.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 4