Whistleblowing Sparks Unprecedented Turmoil in Hyogo Prefectural Government Over Governor’s Favoritism and Power Harassment | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Whistleblowing Sparks Unprecedented Turmoil in Hyogo Prefectural Government Over Governor’s Favoritism and Power Harassment

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Governor Saito of Hyogo Prefecture

A single whistleblower’s letter is shaking up the Hyogo Prefectural Government.

In mid-March, a document titled “Regarding Illegal Activities by Hyogo Prefecture Governor Motohiko Saito” was sent to various relevant locations across Hyogo Prefecture. It detailed seven allegations against Governor Motohiko Saito (46), including illegal activities, acceptance of gifts, and power harassment.

The document was anonymous, but the prefectural government concluded that Mr. A (60), who was the director of the Nishi-Harima Prefectural Citizens Bureau, had written it and subsequently dismissed him. Governor Saito explained at a press conference, “The document is full of baseless claims, and the author has admitted to it.” However, Mr. A denied the governor’s statement, saying, “I do not acknowledge having created a false document. The facts should be investigated promptly.”

Subsequently, the prefectural personnel division led an internal investigation. On May 7th, they concluded that the document lacks evidence and is defamatory, and imposed a three-month suspension on Mr. A as a disciplinary measure. However, there was an outcry from members of the prefectural assembly, who argued, “The investigation was led by the prefectural personnel division and lacked fairness and objectivity.” When the assembly members conducted a new survey among the staff, they identified seven instances of behavior by the governor that were perceived as power harassment.

The winds shifted further on May 20th when Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the lawyer who cooperated with the prefecture’s internal investigation had a conflict of interest. In response, Governor Saito, who had previously denied the need for a reinvestigation, changed his stance, announcing, “To restore trust, we will establish an independent third-party committee.”

The governor’s flip-flopping actions and the prefecture’s responses—what exactly is happening in Hyogo Prefecture? We delve into the reality of the situation through various testimonies and documents.

“The general view is that the contents of the whistleblower’s letter are basically accurate.”

A former senior Hyogo prefectural official, Mr. B, confidently asserts this to our publication. Mr. B stated that he has always had doubts about the governor’s treatment of staff and the use of public funds. Being close to Mr. A, he explained the circumstances leading up to the whistleblower’s letter.

“The biggest difference between the current administration and previous ones, including that of former Governor Toshizo Ido, is the governor’s leadership style. In past administrations, the governor personally made the final policy decisions. However, Governor Saito’s stance is to let the department heads and below decide, and only report the important matters to him.This led to confusion among the staff, creating a stifling atmosphere where people were overly conscious of their superiors’ reactions.

Seeing this situation, Mr. A decided to act, saying that he is satisfied and grateful for the time at the prefectural office. But if things continue like this, it will be unfair to the remaining junior staff. Therefore, he issued the whistleblower’s letter. It was never his intention to cause turmoil in the administration. His wish is to steer the administration in the right direction and restore the original work environment where staff can work comfortably.”

The accusation letter in question

How do the staff perceive the power harassment allegations made by Mr. A? A current senior prefectural official, Mr. C, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, saying, “There is a witch hunt going on, and the staff are on edge.”

“The governor has an emotional side and can get angry without any warning. For instance, when attending events like those hosted by an arts orchestra, he once got angry because the official car was parked too far away, making the walk too long. If there is no waiting room at the venue, he gets furious, asking why no one was prepared. 

Many events are held at hotels, so providing a waiting room means renting a room with public funds, but he doesn’t care about that. He always insists on checking his hairstyle, so a full-length mirror in the waiting room is essential. Staff also need to know the exact location of the toilets. It feels more like we’re constantly trying to keep the governor happy rather than focusing on necessary job duties.”

The part of the accusatory statement regarding the Hanshin victory parade

In addition, the whistleblower letter also raised concerns about the governor’s habit of soliciting gifts, Mr. C continues:

“Since Governor Saito took office, there has been a policy shift towards actively seeking assistance from the private sector and utilizing private funds. However, there are voices among the staff expressing concerns about specific corporate tie-ups. In reality, the governor often travels around the prefecture under the guise of industry and economic inspections, but many times it feels like he’s just observing. Receiving gifts at the inspection sites seems to be the main focus. We jokingly refer to those inspections as ‘field trips.”

Maruo Maki, a prefectural assembly member (59), initiated the request for a reinvestigation in response to the opinions of prefectural employees and residents. Maruo conducted a survey among the staff as well. The responses included specific mentions of requests for the establishment of a third-party committee and numerous allegations of the governor’s bullying behavior, as well as suspicions regarding the acceptance of gifts. Maruo reveals on why he decided to request a reinvestigation:

“There was always a sense of discomfort with the governor’s statements and the prefectural investigation from the beginning. Even though we wanted to investigate whether the contents of the whistleblower letter were true or not, the administrative side has been shutting out information. We started from the point of wanting to pursue the truth, regardless of whether it proved the allegations to be true or false.

There was a concern about the excessive reaction from the prefecture, including personnel actions that could be seen as retaliation, and the demoralization of staff, which could pose a significant obstacle to future prefectural administration. Therefore, when we conducted the survey, we received specific responses from seven individuals. We’ve received strong requests for clarifying the facts.”

The response from the survey and particularly noteworthy in Maruo’s petition submitted to the prefecture saying that a staff member committed suicide due to power harassment. It suggests that there are suspicions that D, who was in charge of the parade for the Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes last November, took his own life.

The actual response text to the survey. Chief G” refers to Mr. D in the text.

The parade was funded through crowdfunding and sponsorship, as the policy was not to use public funds, resulting in the realization of the event with around 500 million yen. However, according to prefectural officials, the crowdfunding campaign only raised about 100 million yen, so D was responsible for coordinating sponsorships and negotiations with various parties to gather the remaining funds.

According to investigators:

“On April 20th of this year, indeed, the chief of the general affairs section passed away, leaving behind a suicide note. This individual was also suffering from depression. However, there was no direct mention of power harassment in the suicide note.”

Shocking statements line up regarding power harassment allegations.

Regarding the suicide of the staff member, questions were raised in the committee, but the prefecture has not clarified the situation. As mentioned by the former prefectural official, Mr. C:

“During last year’s victory parade for the Hanshin Tigers, Mr. D, who was in charge of the practical work, was extremely respectable and highly trusted by his subordinates. It was heartbreaking to see Mr. D going around various departments and saying, they were struggling because they weren’t raising enough money. As he was the head of the General Affairs Division, it was standard for him to remain at the main office, but he was transferred to an external organization under the prefecture in the spring personnel reshuffle, which also felt unsettling to me.”

How does Hyogo Prefecture perceive the series of allegations regarding the governor’s power harassment and suspicions of a staff member’s suicide? In response to an inquiry from FRIDAY Digital, the Prefectural Personnel Division stated:

“We are unable to comment on the establishment of a third-party committee regarding the incident, as we are not in a position to provide an answer. Additionally, we cannot respond to questions regarding staff members due to concerns related to personal information.”

After the interview, on May 21st, Governor Saito announced the establishment of a third-party institution to investigate the suspicions. The Prefectural Assembly is also considering the establishment of a Hundred Article Committee. Some members of the largest faction, the Hyogo Citizens Union, as well as certain members of the Liberal Democratic Party, are emphasizing their intent, stating, “We aim to establish the Hundred Article Committee in the June Assembly session.”

Ito Suguru, 58, a prefectural assembly member of the Liberal Democratic Party, expresses indignation, saying, “The doubts of the people of the prefecture are growing day by day.”

“I believe that it is the responsibility of the assembly members to pursue the truth in order to clear up the prefectural administration. There have been consultations from employees who claim to have suffered harassment from the governor, and they have said that the employees were afraid of disciplinary action, so they couldn’t speak up during the internal investigation. In other words, the investigation was of such a nature. In order to protect the employees, not only the third-party committee but also the Hundred Article Committee will aim for a resolution at the June regular session and strive for immediate establishment.”

However, unraveling numerous suspicions is not easy. As previously mentioned, Maruo, a prefectural assembly member, reaffirms his pledge.

“Objective investigations by third-party committees or Hundred Article Committees are certainly necessary, but I don’t think that the mechanism alone will lead to a clear understanding of the situation. Even if the Hundred Article Committee is convened, we will need to conduct our own investigations independently to uncover the truth. We intend to continue our pursuit to reveal even a single fact.”

With suspicions directed at the governor due to the courageous whistleblowing of one employee, Hyogo Prefecture’s administration is now under scrutiny. Will the truth be revealed in the forthcoming third-party committee? The demand for early clarification from the citizens is increasing day by day.

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