Former Israeli PM Olmert Gives Up Benefits in Order to Avoid Moral Turpitude Ruling

If court current case against ex-premier involves turpitude, and if Olmert is sentenced to a minimum of 3 months, he will be prevented from returning to politics for 7 years.

Ehud Olmert is offering to give up all the benefits he receives as a former prime minister to avoid having his conviction for breach of trust deemed a crime of moral turpitude, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in the Jerusalem District Court.

On July 10, Olmert was convicted of breach of trust for decisions he made while serving as industry, trade and labor minister. The court found that he was improperly involved in allocations made by the ministry's Investment Center to companies that were represented by a close personal friend, attorney Uri Messer.

At the same time, the court acquitted him of two more serious charges: double billing various nonprofits for flights abroad (known as the Rishon Tours case after the travel agency involved ), and illegally taking money from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.

If the court rules that the Investment Center case involved moral turpitude and also sentences Olmert to at least three months in prison, then by law he will be barred from reentering politics for at least seven years.

Prosecutors have said they plan to seek jail time, but have not revealed how long a prison sentence they intend to request.

But Olmert's attorneys say that under a precedent set in the case of former President Moshe Katsav, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term after being convicted of rape, the judges cannot be asked to rule on Olmert's moral turpitude if the issue has no immediate ramifications. Because Olmert does not hold any public office, and is not currently a candidate for office, once he agrees to cede his privileges, there is no reason to discuss moral turpitude at all, the defense says.

Should Olmert choose to seek public office in the future - and rumors to that effect have been flying ever since he was acquitted of the more serious charges two months ago - the issue could be raised again. But it needn't necessarily come to court; the Central Elections Committee chairman could make the decision.

The decision by Olmert's defense team came in response to a letter submitted to the court by prosecutor Uri Korb, which noted the Knesset Finance Committee's decision in 2007 to allow the benefits given former senior officials to be halted if they are convicted of a crime that a court deems to have involved moral turpitude.

Korb thereby tipped off the defense that he planned to ask the court to declare Olmert guilty of moral turpitude, so that these privileges - which include a driver and a government car, two personal assistants and phone expenses for five years - could be withdrawn.

Attorney Eli Zohar, who heads Olmert's defense team, wrote Korb in response that the former prime minister is willing to give up all his privileges voluntarily, so there was no need to raise the issue of moral turpitude in court.

"Mr. Olmert never asked for the conditions set down in the retirement provisions in order to continue his activity on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, here and abroad, as a former Israeli prime minister," Zohar wrote. "Let's not get involved with all sorts of legal acrobatics that ostensibly serve a certain purpose, while their true purpose is something else entirely.

"Mr. Olmert has no intention of being dragged into the superfluous and pointless debate into which you are trying to drag the court. We are thus informing you that Mr. Olmert is renouncing all the regular privileges ... to which he is entitled as a former prime minister. This will not prevent him from continuing his welcome public efforts on behalf of the people and the state ... at his own expense and on his own time."

Zohar's letter elicited an equally sharp response from Korb.

"We saw fit to send this letter to make sure the decisions of Knesset committees, in which some changes have been made in recent years, were known to you," he wrote back. "Our letter wasn't sent to anyone except you, and was sent in collegial fashion and in order to streamline the hearing.

"In the case before us, the state believes that according to all the criteria set in [previous] rulings, the act of which the defendant was convicted involves turpitude. Hence the state has an obligation to seek a finding of turpitude during the sentencing.

"We regret both the unprecedented tone and the baseless content of your letter."

Olmert is also currently on trial in another corruption case, known as the Holyland case, in the Tel Aviv District Court. That court Tuesday rejected a prosecution request to bar the "Kolbotek" television show from airing an investigative report on the state's key witness. The state argued that airing the show tomorrow, just before the defense starts cross-examining the witness, amounted to witness tampering. But the court said so much had already been published about the witness that "there's no point closing the stable doors when it's empty."

Ofra Edelman contributed to this report.