Earlier this month, the city of Osaka punished 27 municipal employees for “embezzlement” (chakufuku). Usually, embezzlement is the purview of white collar miscreants, but these people all worked for the city’s sanitation bureau cleaning rivers and other publicly run properties. The city says these workers found cash while cleaning 10 rivers and canals and instead of handing the money in to their supervisors they pocketed it.
Out of 42 employees investigated, six were fired and 21 were suspended without pay. The amounts weren’t particularly large. For instance, between July and October 2009, five people are said to have pocketed a total of ¥150,000 among them. The largest windfall at one time was ¥105,000, which was found and kept by two men who were cleaning the famous Dotonbori Canal. In fact, it was this incident that set off the whole investigation. A third employee who was with the two men recorded the find secretly with his camcorder and then reported it to his superiors. Though this individual might have been celebrated as a whistleblower, he ended up as one of the workers fired since, according to media reports, during subsequent questioning he made verbal threats to company investigators.
Osaka officials did not elaborate on the legal or ethical principles behind the disciplinary measure. Presumably, because the money was found in publicly maintained rivers, it is considered the property of the city unless the owners of the money can be located. But if a person who is not a municipal employee found the money by accident there is no legal recourse for compelling that person to hand the money over to the authorities. Ethically, of course, the person is expected to do so, and the normal procedure is that if no one comes forward to claim the money within a predetermined period of time, the finder gets to keep it. In these circumstances, however, the finders were city employees who found the money while they were on city time, so the money belonged to the city unless someone claimed it. Osaka, it should be noted, is pretty deep in debt, and every little bit helps.