Prosecution rattled by Olmert's near-acquittal
Both State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz were intimately involved in the indictment.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's near-complete acquittal in three corruption cases on Tuesday caused shock and dismay in the State Attorney's Office and sparked demands by both politicians and jurists for a probe into how the country's top two justice officials came to indict a sitting prime minister based on what three judges ultimately deemed to be insufficient evidence.
Both State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz were intimately involved in the indictment, which ended on Tuesday with Olmert being convicted of only a single count of breach of trust. Both had repeatedly expressed confidence that Olmert would be convicted on all counts in the charge sheet. Lador even appeared personally in the rare pretrial deposition of a key prosecution witness, Morris Talansky. In August 2008 he explained this decision in an email to fellow prosecutors in which he implied that he would take personal responsibility should the gambit fail.
"As you know, I've decided to personally appear in these proceedings, and I made the decision principally because the ethical issues involved in this case make it necessary for me, in my current position, to appear in court," Lador wrote at the time. "I will also bear responsibility for any possible outcome that may arise from this unusual move."
At a press conference last night Lador attempted to justify the decision to press charges against Olmert, calling it the prosecution's "public duty."
"Had we shelved these cases we would have betrayed our responsibilities," Lador said. He also said his promise to assume personal responsibility related only to the pretrial deposition - a move subsequently approved by both the trial court and the Supreme Court - and not the verdict. He assailed those who said he should resign in light of the verdict.
"Even the defense never argued that we failed to submit prima facie evidence," he said. "The claim that a partial or full acquittal should cause the prosecutor, me in this case, to pay a personal price is very dangerous to the operation of the prosecution," Lador said.
Other prosecutors leaped to his defense. "We didn't expect this outcome," admitted Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel, who helped to prosecute the case. "But you shouldn't dismiss the fact that a man with such a lofty public position was convicted of what he was convicted of. He sat and made decisions on matters in which [his friend] Uri Messer was involved, and that was improper conduct .... These are basic norms of conduct that were violated time and again during Olmert's term as industry, trade and labor minister," Abarbanel said.
Fellow Jerusalem District prosecutor in the case, Uri Corb, termed the demand for Lador's resignation "scandalous."
But former Jerusalem District prosecutor Irit Baumhorn called the case a "dramatic failure" that underscored the prosecution's inability "to examine itself and draw conclusions."
MK Uri Ariel (National Union ), chairman of the State Control Committee, labeled Olmert's acquittal on most of the charges a "Yom Kippur for the prosecution" and said it reinforced his longstanding demand to create "an external, independent ombudsman for the State Prosecutor's Office, which could investigate and examine how decisions are made."
But Prof. Emanuel Gross, an expert in criminal law from the University of Haifa, warned against jumping to conclusions.
"This is a failure for the prosecution," Gross acknowledged. "But even if it is hard to determine whether the acquittal could have been foreseen or prevented, or if the evidence the State Attorney's Office had did in fact justify filing an indictment, it is important to remember that no other agency can do the prosecution's job, so we shouldn't rush to tie the hands of those who do the work," Gross said.
It's not yet clear what sentence the prosecution will seek for Olmert's breach-of-trust conviction. The prevailing view among legal experts on Tuesday was that his acquittal on all the more serious charges, combined with the fact that the indictment forced him to resign as prime minister, would lead the prosecution to seek a light sentence, such as community service, rather than actual jail time.
But given Lador's unrepentant appearance at last night's press conference, it's possible the prosecution will not only seek a custodial sentence time, but also ask the court to rule that Olmert's offense involved moral turpitude, a finding that would prohibit his return to politics for several years. It's also possible that Lador will appeal the entire verdict to the Supreme Court.