Facing bribery-related accusations
Japanese lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto has entered a not guilty plea during the first hearing of his trial on Monday, as he faces charges relating to bribery and attempting to pay off a witness.
bribes worth about ¥7.6m ($68,923) from Chinese gambling company 500.com
Prosecutors allege that while in the role of State Minister of the Cabinet Office, Akimoto accepted bribes worth about ¥7.6m ($68,923) from Chinese gambling company 500.com in return for special treatment during the integrated resort (IR) casino license bidding process. While out on bail, Akimoto also allegedly tried to bribe witnesses to provide false testimony that would be favorable to his case.
During the Tokyo District Court hearing, Akimoto said: “I never actually met anyone related to the Chinese company and I didn’t accept any cash. I am innocent on all counts.”
Akimoto’s alleged wrongdoings
Akimoto’s plea did not come as a surprise, as he has consistently maintained his innocence over the course of the past year. At the time of the alleged bribes, 500.com was looking at potentially bidding for an IR license in Okinawa or Hokkaido. Akimoto was in charge of overseeing the legalization of casinos in Japan through IRs, placing him in an influential position.
Akimoto reportedly received kickbacks between September 2017 and February 2018. These include the lawmaker’s travel expenses to Hokkaido and China, as well as an instance of Akimoto receiving a paper bag containing ¥3m ($27,206) at his office building. His arrest over the alleged bribe-taking took place in December 2019, and it was at this time that he departed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Akimoto got out of jail after posting bail of ¥30m ($272,063) in February 2020. However, he was re-arrested without the chance of bail in August 2020 when the witness tampering allegations came to light.
four people guilty of handing Akimoto bribes, while another four received convictions in relation to witness tampering
A series of trials have already taken place in relation to the high-profile casino bribery case. The courts found four people guilty of handing Akimoto bribes, while another four received convictions in relation to witness tampering. Through two of his supporters and former company consultants, Akimoto allegedly offered up to ¥20m ($181,375) to a witness to perjure himself in court.
A slow-moving process
While casino gambling became legal in Japan in 2018, the IR process has been subject to numerous delays. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major stumbling block, causing a pushing back of application processes a number of times.
Each of the locations that are seeking a license needs to have a casino operator partner on board when submitting its application. Local governments will be able to apply for one of the three licenses starting October 2021, with this process closing in April 2022. The main regions competing for an IR license are Nagasaki, Yokohama, Osaka, and Wakayama.
Numerous casino operators have pulled out of the IR license competition over the past year or so for a number of reasons. Major casino company Las Vegas Sands was among them, deeming the stringent IR framework that is in place a reason for abandoning its Japan plans. Others cited the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic as a reason for withdrawing from the race.