Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's friend and former lawyer Uri Messer was at one point holding at least $300,000 in cash in his office safe on Olmert's behalf, Messer said in court yesterday, in his first day of testimony in Olmert's corruption trial.
When asked why Messer would keep what he described as "around $300,000, maybe a little more" in his office safe, he told the Jerusalem District Court: "I received the money in cash, and there was an understanding that the funds would stay in cash. You don't keep cash in a closet, you keep it in a safe."
Much of the money, which has been described as a "secret fund," came from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, according to the indictment. Olmert is charged with failing to report the donations to the state comptroller, as required.
Talansky said during a deposition in May 2008 that he had given Olmert some $150,000 over 15 years but has not been in contact with Olmert (except for a single social function ) since he became prime minister in May 2006, serving until March 2009.
In Messer's testimony yesterday, he confirmed that the cash generally came stuffed in envelopes and said that at first he didn't know the money came from Talansky, but later realized that at least some of it did.
Messer repeatedly confirmed that Olmert knew about the money and said Olmert's bureau chief, Shula Zaken, generally gave him the funds, but that Olmert would sometimes ask for some of the money.
"It was cash, generally in an envelope. In dollars," Messer said in court. "I was asked to bring money by Shula, maybe sometimes by Olmert himself. Generally fairly small sums - a few thousand shekels."
Although Talansky admitted to having given Olmert cash-filled envelopes, he maintained that he asked nothing in return, though he said Olmert had tried, unsuccessfully, to help him in a business venture by introducing him to several billionaires.
Messer said yesterday that he returned the money to Zaken after corruption allegations began circulating about Olmert in 2006.
"I didn't see holding the money as being improper," Messer said. "I realized that whatever would happen, even if I had been keeping the money in a bank account, it would be interpreted as doing something wrong."
Messer said he was holding money in trust for his client, as many lawyers do.
Olmert's defense team seized on this as an indication that there was nothing wrong with what he did.
Messer "spoke very clearly," said defense lawyer Eli Zohar. "The funds that were accepted were legitimate funds, which he held in trust. There's nothing improper about that."
Amir Dan, Olmert's media consultant, sent a similar message, saying: "Today, it became clear that there was no secret fund or anything like that, but legal monies that were held in trust."
Messer, who will testify again on Thursday and in the coming weeks, is also expected to tell the court about his role in the Investment Center affair, in which Olmert is charged with providing assistance to companies that used Messer's legal services while Olmert was industry and trade minister between 2003 and 2005.
In court yesterday, Messer said it was difficult for him to testify against Olmert. The judges turned down his request to allow him to discuss his psychological state behind closed doors, but the judges said details from that part of his testimony could not be published.
Before that, Messer downplayed his years-long relationship with Olmert, with whom he once founded a law firm.
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