Ramat Gan mayor Zvi Bar tried to silence a municipal auditor with a share of the honey-pot, the former whistle-blower and current Likud Knesset member Carmel Shama told TheMarker yesterday. Now known as Carmel Shama-Hacohen, the MK said he had been the one to complain to police about suspicions of malfeasance at Ramat Gan city hall.
On Tuesday the prosecution announced intentions to charge Bar and other city officials, subject to a hearing before State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, with graft. Bar is suspected, among other things, of accepting more than NIS 2 million from five property developers in four separate cases.
At the center of the case against Bar looms the Savyon Tower, a 35-story housing high-rise at the corner of Ben-Gurion and Hatmarim streets in Ramat Gan. Building rights were improperly increased from 49 apartments to 156 at the expense of a plot of land next door owned by the city, in exchange for bribes to Bar paid into overseas bank accounts, police suspect.
Shama-Hacohen was chairman of the Ramat Gan city audit committee from 2004 to 2009. That first year he questioned the low amount of betterment tax paid by the private owners of the land on which Savyon Tower was built. In 2007 he submitted a complaint to police, triggering an investigation into one of Israel's most long-serving mayors.
"Bar tried to tempt me, to buy me, to shut me up, but it didn't work," Shama-Hacohen told TheMarker. "Time after time I raised complaints, but the city council deleted them from the agenda. At some city council meetings, the answers we got ranged from insults, smears and barbs to contempt. Bar told me that if I had basis for my suspicions I should go to the police. That's what I did." The evidence he provided was the testimony of contractors who had slipped Bar money in exchange for building permits, the MK said.
Are there other projects in the city that the police should be investigating?
"If the authorities have to investigate every suspicious project in Ramat Gan, they'll have to double or triple their manpower," responded Shama-Hacohen, alleging that "it's hard to find a single kosher high-rise in the city, planned and erected by the book. The criminal activity wasn't isolated. It was systematic and organized."
There's good reason the police used tactics normally used to fight organized crime, he added. "I think additional corruption cases are going to be uncovered in Ramat Gan. This isn't the last one."
Hardly a single tower in the diamond exchange area was built by proper procedure, charged the parliamentarian.
The reactions he's been receiving since the prosecution made its announcement have been adulatory, said Shama-Hacohen. Throughout, Bar had countered by accusing Shama-Hacohen of vindictiveness and claiming he was being hounded, said the parliamentarian. "Now that I have a stamp of approval from the Israel Police and the state prosecution, he doesn't have a problem with Carmel Shama any more. Now he has a problem with the officials of the law."
Bar has thick skin, according to Shama-Hacohen, who noted that that the mayor didn't care what anybody thought. But since there is no legal mechanism for forcing him out of office before the proceedings are over, he said, Bar could continue filling his position until the end of his elected term.
Next mayor of Ramat Gan?
Do you mean to run for mayor of Ramat Gan?
"My underlying dream was to be mayor of Ramat Gan. That's where I'm aiming," he responded, adding that it would be hard to choose between his parliamentary duties and leading the city. But he doesn't have to decide until elections are declared.
At 76, Bar is one of the longest-serving mayors in the country. He came to politics after a long career in the army and the police force and has been under investigation for the past several years.
The Ramat Gan municipality chose not to respond to Shama-Hacohen's allegations and released the same statement it made after the prosecution announcement, accusing the prosecution of bias and sensationalism, and saying the prosecution hoped the press would lead the public to prosecute the mayor, "as it has done to many other elected officials before the courts hear the case."
The city added that freezing Bar's bank accounts on the eve of the holiday, before he had even been summoned for a hearing, was unnecessary and was designed solely to hurt him and possibly to poison public sentiment against him and prevent him from fighting to prove his integrity. "Zvi Bar's hands are clean. He will not be deterred from continuing to work for Ramat Gan and its residents, despite the need to contend with the false allegations" leveled by hate-filled individuals, some of whom tried to cut coupons at the expense of the people, according to the statement.
The Ramat Gan municipality went on to point out that Bar won a fifth election "with an unprecedented 70% of the vote." The public knows of the smear job and is smart enough not to buy it, the municipality said in its statement. "Therefore, the mayor has no intention of resigning. The law does not require him to resign and during the legal proceedings forced on him, he will continue to work hard on behalf of Ramat Gan and its residents."
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