TOKYO — Residents of a rural Japanese town were each anxiously awaiting a $775 payment last month as part of a coronavirus pandemic stimulus package.
But a city official mistakenly transferred Abu’s entire COVID-19 relief budget, nearly $360,000, to a single recipient on the list of low-income households eligible to receive the money. After promising to return the accidental payment, police said, the man bet it.
The man, Sho Taguchi, 24, told police he had lost money at online casinos, a Yamaguchi prefecture police official said by phone Thursday. The day before, authorities arrested Taguchi, the official said. The charge: fraud.
Japan is not the only country where coronavirus relief money has been embezzled. Fraud has been so rampant in the United States that the Justice Department recently appointed a prosecutor to prosecute it. People have been accused of buying a Pokemon card, a Lamborghini and other luxuries.
But Abu, which has a population of 2,952, may be the only city on Earth where an entire COVID-19 stimulus fund disappeared at the hands of an online gambler who received it by administrative error. The details of the case and the scant attention from Japanese national media shocked residents of the seaside town.
“I was surprised to hear the news and also amazed at how he spent the money,” said Yuriko Suekawa, 72, who has lived in Abu since birth. “It’s really unbelievable.”
The story began on April 8, when an Abu official mistakenly asked a local bank to wire Taguchi 46.3 million yen, or about $358,000, said Atsushi Nohara, an official with the city. Taguchi’s name topped the list of 463 households each eligible for 100,000 yen under a nationwide stimulus package.
After Abu officials realized the mistake, they immediately went to Taguchi and demanded the money back, the town’s mayor, Norihiko Hanada, said in an address on the city’s YouTube channel. city.
Taguchi agreed to drive with officials to his bank in a government car, but he refused to enter the building and later said he planned to consult a lawyer, according to state broadcaster NHK. Taguchi met with Abu’s deputy mayor on April 14, NHK reported, and his lawyer told the city the next day that his client would return the money.
“But he ultimately didn’t,” Hanada said on YouTube. He said Taguchi eventually told city officials that he had spent the 46.3 million yen, that he would not run away, and that he planned “to atone for the sin.”
Hanada apologized to residents on behalf of the city for losing “such a large amount of public funds.”
“The arrest will help us get closer to the truth,” he said Thursday. “His testimony will give us a springboard to get the money back.”
Masaki Kamei, an Osaka city prosecutor, said Abu officials were responsible for allowing Taguchi to drain the city’s COVID-19 relief fund.
“The city’s approach was not strict enough, and that allowed the case to grow to this point,” Kamei said. “Perhaps their approach was based on a view of human nature as fundamentally good.”
Abu is about 100 miles north of the nearest major city, Fukuoka, in an area of Yamaguchi Prefecture where agriculture, fishing and forestry drive the economy. Taguchi moved there about a year and a half ago under a program in which the local government offers grants to foreigners who move in and rent unoccupied houses, said Nohara, the town official.
After the error, city officials sent COVID-19 relief payments to local households, Nohara said, adding that the money came from another municipal source. He did not specify.
Suekawa, the Abu resident, said the episode was a misfortune for a town that had successfully weathered the pandemic and hoped to attract visitors to its newly built seaside campsite.
“I hope this negative image of the city will subside and it will become a sunny and calm place again,” she said. “Anyone who makes a mistake, so I don’t blame this man for that, but I would like him to admit his crime and give us back our money.”
In any event, Nohara said, Abu sued Taguchi last week for around 51 million yen (about $399,000), including legal fees.