Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Kentaro Sonoura resigned on Wednesday after being accused of underreporting political funds, delivering a fresh blow to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of a string of local elections next spring.
Sonoura voluntarily submitted to questioning by prosecutors after being suspected of underreporting some 40 million yen ($303,000) collected through fundraising parties, sources close to the matter said.
The fifth-term House of Representatives member submitted his letter of resignation to Hiroyuki Hosoda, lower house speaker, earlier in the day, after coming under intense pressure against a backdrop of the allegations. He also left the ruling party.
In a statement, Sonoura apologized for having submitted "false" political funds reports, fostering "public distrust."
His departure is another headache for Kishida, who heads the LDP, as his Cabinet's approval ratings have already taken a hit after three members were effectively forced to give up their ministerial posts due to a series of financial and other scandals.
The 50-year-old Sonoura, known as an aide to LDP Vice President Taro Aso, told reporters last month that he was unaware of any underreporting but later admitted he had been informed by one of his secretaries during questioning by prosecutors, the sources said.
Aso, who served as prime minister for around one year until September 2009, is a key factional backer of Kishida.
An organization that manages Sonoura's political funds reported it had raised 43.62 million yen from six fundraising parties held between 2018 and 2020. The lawmaker heads the body.
A different support group for Sonoura reported separately that it had received some 10 million yen through three events between 2017 and 2019. The secretary serves as treasurer for both groups.
But the two bodies are suspected of collecting more money via the fundraising events and underreporting the amounts, according to the sources.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has decided to issue a summary indictment against Sonoura on charges of violating the political funds control law in the not-so-distant future, investigative sources said.
Failure to report income or expenditure is punishable by up to five years imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million yen under the law.
If Sonoura's criminal punishment is finalized, he will be banned from running for any election for five years in principle.
The opposition bloc has lambasted the LDP. Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters that Sonoura has to "explain how he used 40 million yen if he has really reflected on what he did."
Keiji Kokuta, the Diet affairs chief of the Japanese Communist Party, also said the issue surrounding Sonoura "will not be resolved" although he resigned as a lawmaker, adding that the LDP bears an "extremely heavy responsibility" for the scandal.
Local elections are scheduled to be held across Japan in April.
As Sonoura's resignation was approved, a by-election in his Chiba Prefecture constituency, near Tokyo, is expected to be held in April based on the public offices election law. The LDP has to select a replacement candidate for the lawmaker.
A former reporter for the major Japanese daily newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun, Sonoura served as a special adviser on foreign affairs and senior vice foreign minister under the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in July.