team - Ofer Vaknin - January 26 2011
The team, from left: Eldad Yaniv, Doron Nabot, Mali Polishook-Bloch. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Nir Keidar
Rami Friedman Photo by Nir Keidar
Nir Kafri
Frances Raday. Photo by Nir Kafri
Olivier Pitoussi
Micha Lindenstrauss. Photo by Olivier Pitoussi

A committee set up by the state comptroller aims, no less, to change the entire face of relations between big business and government in Israel. The recommendations are many, but boil down to one thing: giving the state comptroller tools to monitor and reduce economic concentration, meaning the domination of the economy (and even the political scene ) by big business interests.

The committee, founded by Micha Lindenstrauss and headed by Prof. Abraham (Rami ) Friedman, is about to publish an interim report of its recommendations. Key among them is a demand that upon taking office, public officials will have to disclose their business contacts, in order to track whether these colleagues give them donations or other forms of financing.

The officials will also have to provide statements of wealth - and again two or three years after leaving office, at which time the state comptroller will compare the statements, the committee will be recommending. Nor will these statements be taken at face value: A commission will be set up to verify the veracity of the figures provided.

The Friedman committee, founded in March 2010, is still in session, but TheMarker has learned the main points of its recommendations. The purpose of publishing the interim report is to give the public an opportunity to comment.

Friedman himself formerly served as civil service commissioner, in which capacity he spearheaded a number of reforms in the public service. The other members of the team are former Knesset member Meli Polishook-Bloch, former general Amos Lapidot, former Tel Aviv Police District chief Yosef Sedbon, advocate Eldad Yaniv, CPA Menahem Rahav, Dr. Doron Navot and Prof. Emanuel Gross of the University of Haifa, Prof. Frances Raday and CPA Dan Mendel.

Since its establishment the committee has met dozens of times and has heard testimony from sources in government and business, including former attorney general Menachem Mazuz, retired justice Yitzhak Zamir, who wrote an ethical code for Knesset members, and property developer Alfred Akirov.

The following list encompasses some of the recommendations the committee is about to publish.

Fines for filing wealth statements late

Ministers, Knesset members, mayors and their deputies will all have to provide statements of wealth when taking office, at the end of their term, and again two or three years after leaving office. The state comptroller will look into changes in the state of their wealth.

Also, a five-person public committee headed by a former justice will look into conflicts of interest arising from their statements. That same committee will be empowered to require statements of wealth from other officials, at its discretion, though it will have to explain why. Any official tardy in delivering the statement will be fined a month's salary.

The committee recommends that the statements include a section listing business contacts, to enable future scrutiny of donations or whether the official has done them favors during his time in office.

To make the statements effective and preclude vagueness, the committee recommends that clear rules be set, and that the statements undergo a verification process. If, when comparing wealth statements from different periods of time, the committee develops suspicions of misconduct, it will pass on its findings to the attorney general.

Transparency: With whom do lobbyists meet?

Key to acceptable relations between business and government is transparency, say the committee members. They recommend publishing the daily agendas of the prime minister, ministers, Knesset speaker and heads of Knesset committees, and also of the ministerial directors general, in full and in real time on the appropriate websites. Also, the websites will have to list the lobbyists active in the Knesset and name their representatives, and report on all meetings with Knesset members.

The Knesset website does have a list of lobbyists with permits to enter the premises. But Knesset members do not have to disclose meetings with lobbyists. Also, the rules governing lobbyists do not apply to ministers and officials, just Knesset members.

Ministers must not meet with businessmen alone

Another facet of transparency is a recommendation that ministers be prohibited from meeting with businessmen one on one. Any such meeting must also be attended by ministry officials. The committee proposes that the public be allowed access to meetings of the Knesset committees, subject to advance arrangements, or that the meetings be broadcast over the Internet.

Ministers would be required to publish the manner in which directors are selected for the boards of government companies. The applications will have to be explained. Minutes of meetings by committees vetting board appointments to government companies will be published, to enable the public to monitor such appointments.

Another recommendation is to publish all government discussions on the relevant websites, except in cases of secret information, such as relating to Israel's defense, and in cases where privacy is an issue.

5-year cooling-off period

At present, an official leaving government service for business is supposed to "cool off" for a year before taking the job. Even that law is not always enforced. The committee is apparently planning a substantial crackdown, mainly by extending that cooling-off period for high-ranking officials who were involved in relations between business and government.

For instance, any official involved in the consolidation of any agreement between the state and any business group would be prohibited from taking a job at that group for five years, the committee means to recommend. To give an example, any official involved in reaching the tax arrangement between the state and Israel Chemicals would be banned from any job with any company belonging to the Ofer Brothers, who control ICL, for five years after leaving government service.

There will be a committee empowered to discuss exceptions to the rule, and to set compensation for public officials who may not take private-sector jobs due to the cooling-off law, if they remain without income during that period. Any former public servant who breaks the rules would be liable to be fined.

The committee members view the mounting economic concentration with concern, in that business interests have been imposing ever-rising pressure on politicians. The committee therefore proposes that the state comptroller thoroughly study the supervisory mechanisms existing in government - with the end aim of ensuring that the gigantic business pyramids do not wield unfair influence, to the detriment of the free market. How this is to be done remains under debate.