Supreme Court Clears Ehud Olmert of Main Corruption Charge in Holyland Case; Cuts Jail Term

Court shortens former prime minister's prison sentence for bribery offenses from six years to 18 months; announces rulings on various other appeals in case.

Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court, during a hearing on the appeal in the Holyland corruption case, Dec. 29, 2015.
Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court, during a hearing on the appeal in the Holyland corruption case, Dec. 29, 2015. Emil Salman

The Supreme Court partially granted an appeal by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Holyland corruption case on Tuesday. A panel of five justices determined that Olmert will serve 18 months in prison instead of the six-year sentence handed down to him by the Tel Aviv District Court last year.

The former premier was acquitted of transferring half-a-million shekels (about $125,000) in bribes from the state's witness Shmuel Dechner to his brother Yossi Olmert, but was convicted – in a unanimous decision among all five justices – of accepting 60,000 shekels in bribes in the Hazera affair, part of the Holyland case.

Olmert will begin serving his sentence on February 15.

The court's ruling came a year after its initial discussion of appeals by a number of individuals who had been convicted in the affair. The case involved payment by land developers of tens of millions of dollars in bribes to senior officials in the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Lands Administration, to encourage development of the capital’s Holyland luxury housing project, beginning in 1999.

Ehud Olmert arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015.
Reuters

After the decision on his appeal, Olmert said: "A great weight was lifted from my heart when the Supreme Court ruled in its decision that I was acquitted on the central charge that was the Holyland affair, and determined that I am innocent in this affair."

"It is possible that the public, which naturally wasn't exposed to the entire evidentiary mosaic, is disappointed or surprised" by the fact Olmert was acquitted of the primary charge brought against him, said Justice Isaac Amit, after the ruling. "But the public's faith in the court stems from knowing it issues rulings warranted by justice and evidence, and not out of fear over the public response. It appears that this case demonstrates the gap between a trial [conducted in court] and a trial by media or public."

The former prime minister and other appellants had asked the Supreme Court to reconsider a September 2014 ruling by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen to impose steep fines and heavy punishment on them, including jail terms of up to seven years. The Supreme Court deferred punishment of the convicted men until it could review the case.

The appeals were filed by Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem at the time the Holyland project was taking shape; his successor in that post, Uri Lupolianski; former chairman of Bank Hapoalim and businessman Dan Dankner; former municipal engineer Uri Sheetrit; former city council member Eliezer Simhayoff; real-estate developers Hillel Cherney and Avigdor Kellner; and Meir Rabin, assistant to Dechner.

Jail-time reductions

On Tuesday, the justices unanimously rejected the part of Lupolianski's appeal related to changing his conviction, but agreed to reduce his six-year prison sentence to six months' community service. The judges wrote in their ruling that, "in light of his severe medical condition," it would be inappropriate for the ex-mayor to serve jail time.

Ehud Olmert speaks to the media after a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015.
Reuters

Lupolianski was convicted last year on seven counts of accepting bribes for donations given by Dechner to the nonprofit organization the former mayor founded and ran, Yad Sarah. 

The Supreme Court panel partially granted the appeal of Cherney, owner of the Holyland project, who was convicted of a long list of crimes including giving and enabling bribes, falsifying records and money laundering. He had originally been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, but the court reduced that sentence to 26 months on Tuesday. He is still obligated to pay a hefty fine, and to relinquish about a million shekels worth of property.

As regards Kellner, the panel acquitted the businessman on all counts of bribery and money laundering with respect to the Holyland project, but convicted him of giving bribes in another, related real-estate corruption affair, involving projects of the Hazera company, which holds lands near the former Hiriya waste facility outside Tel Aviv. In that same case, the justices convicted Olmert, in his role as minister of industry, trade and labor at the time, of accepting 60,000 shekels in bribes intended to further the Hazera projects.

Hillel Cherney at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015.
Emil Salman

With respect to the Holyland affair, the judges rejected the appeal of Rabin, assistant to state's witness Dechner, who passed away in 2013. Rabin was convicted of bribery and money laundering last year, and sentenced to five years in prison.

In the appeals they filed in 2014, the defendants had stressed the need for the Supreme Court to revisit the problematic nature of Dechner’s testimony in the Holyland and Hazera cases, since they were denied the opportunity to cross-examine him due to his untimely death.

On Tuesday, the majority of justices on the court panel rejected most of the appeal filed by Dan Dankner, who was convicted on three counts of  brokering bribes, money laundering and fraud. However, the bench did agree to reduce his original jail sentence of three years to two years.

Uri Lupolianski at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015.
Emil Salman

The five justices unanimously rejected the appeal of former city engineer Sheetrit, who was convicted of accepting bribes, money laundering and falsifying records, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Lastly, the panel reduced the charges in the Holyland affair against Simhayoff, who served as deputy mayor under Lupolianski, from two counts of bribery to one, and sentenced him to 18 months in jail, instead of the original term he was given of three and a half years.

Holyland and the TA court

In March 2014 Tel Aviv District Court Judge Rozen originally convicted Olmert of accepting bribes as mayor of Jerusalem, in exchange for helping the Holyland developers advance their multi-building project in the western part of the city. Shula Zaken, Olmert's former bureau chief, was also convicted of accepting bribes. (As part of a plea bargain, however, she was sentenced to only nine months in prison and agreed to testify against Olmert in other corruption cases. In the end, after time off for good behavior, Zaken served six months in prison.)

Specifically, Rozen found Olmert guilty of two bribery charges and said he accepted 560,000 shekels from the developers, although the prosecutors originally alleged that he had received more than 800,000 shekels. Rozen sentenced the former premier to six years, and fined him 1 million shekels in addition to another 560,000 shekels, the sum of the bribe.

Dan Dankner at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015. Emil Salman
Emil Salman

Separate verdicts were handed down last year for 13 of the suspects originally put on trial in the Holyland affair. Among those convicted was former Jerusalem city council member Avraham Feiner, but Yaakov Efrati, the head of the Israel Land Administration, was acquitted, as were Amnon Safran and Shimon Galon, managers at the Holyland Park company.