Japanese Lawmaker Pleads Not Guilty in Casino Kickback Scandal Despite Fingerprints on Cash

Posted on: March 29, 2021, 09:10h. 

Last updated on: March 29, 2021, 10:25h.

A Japanese lawmaker who was a key figure in shaping policy for the country’s recently legalized casino market has pleaded not guilty to accepting bribes from a prospective operator.

Tsukasa Akimoto
Tsukasa Akimoto continues to claim he is innocent of corruption charges, despite the testimonies of others embroiled in the scandal. (Image: The Japan Times)

This is the preliminary hearing in the trial of Tsukasa Akimoto, 49, in Tokyo’s District Court.  The politician is accused of receiving ¥7.6 million (US$72,000) in kickbacks from Chinese online gaming company 500.com. That’s allegedly in return for favorable treatment of its bid for a coveted Japanese gaming license.

Akimoto has also been indicted on charges of witness tampering. Prosecutors allege he ordered two of his supporters to bribe a former 500.com advisor in a failed attempt to get him to provide false, favorable testimony.

Greasy Palms

Akimoto’s not guilty plea Monday came despite the two former 500.com advisors having admitted bribing Akimoto. Their goal was to help advance its plan to build a casino in Hokkaido prefecture.

Last October, Masahiko Konno and Katsunori Nakazato were sentenced to two years in prison and to one year and 10 months, respectively, for greasing the lawmaker’s palm.

Additionally, in December, Akimoto’s two supporters, Akihito Awaji and Fumihiko Sato, were sentenced to 12 months and 14 months in prison, respectively. That’s after they admitted exhorting Konno to commit perjury.

Unfortunately for Akimoto, his fingerprints were later found on one of the stacks of $286,000 in cash used in the failed bribe, according to The South China Morning Post.

Japan Casinos in Limbo

Japanese lawmakers passed an enabling bill to legalize casinos in December 2016. This authorized the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to develop a regulatory framework for the future market. Legislation passed in 2018 then authorized the implementation of casino resorts.

But progress has been slow. The license-bidding process invites operators to team up with local development partners and prospective host cities or prefectures to vie for licenses. This process has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Akimoto oversaw the regulatory process for about a year from September 2017, which is the month he is alleged to have received his first bribe. He was forced out of the LDP following his arrest on Christmas Day 2019.

The scandal has damaged the casino regulation process in the eyes of an already skeptical populace. The Japanese public has consistently polled around 2 to 1 against casino resorts.

The situation prompted Osaka prefecture to implement a new policy that bans meetings between city and prefecture workers and gaming company representatives.

500.com has since abandoned its interest in a Japanese casino.