Yitzhak Ohayon - Nir Keidar
Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon Photo by Nir Keidar
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The three-term mayor who has led Petah Tikva since 1998 was arrested yesterday on suspicion of taking bribes and accepting favors in exchange for promoting the interests of real estate developers and other businesspeople.

Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon and his deputy, Uriel Busso, were arrested after a covert police investigation that had spanned several months, beginning with a tip-off, led to a raid of city hall yesterday.

Police arrested Ohayon and Busso, who are suspected of unrelated charges of accepting bribes and advancing business interests, and questioned several municipal officials after examining the computers and documents seized in the raid. Investigators suspect the mayor has been taking bribes for the past six years.

Ohayon, whose remand was extended by four days yesterday, is also accused of fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and conspiracy to commit a crime.

After he is released from custody, the mayor will be placed under house arrest for 10 days and barred from city hall for another 20 days after that. He has been ordered to hand in his passport and is not allowed to leave the country for six months, unless he receives police authorization.

Municipal official Moti Zaft will serve as acting mayor in the interim.

Police suspect that some of the people who bribed Ohayon did so in an effort to promote their development projects. There has been extensive construction in the city over the last few years and real estate prices have skyrocketed, rising by hundreds of percent.

Police also suspect Ohayon received extensive campaign contributions during the 2008 local election from donors with business interests in the city and that, in return, he did them favors that significantly increased their bottom lines.

When the Petah Tikva mayor appeared in court for his remand hearing yesterday, he initially refused to answer reporters' questions, but eventually said the allegations were all a "misunderstanding" prompted by political rivals.

"Wait and see how this ends," he said. "There's a misunderstanding here over this whole arrest. There are a lot of people in this city who want my seat, and they are the ones behind this whole thing."

Ohayon denies all the allegations, said his lawyer, Zion Amir. (Amir also served on the team of lawyers that represented former President Moshe Katsav in his rape trial, which ended with a conviction in December ).

Busso has been released from custody and is under house arrest for eight days.

This isn't the first time the city has been involved in a bribery scandal. Several years ago, Ohayon's deputy at the time, Sinai Gilboa, resigned after being accused of taking NIS 15 million from the Dan bus company to kill a plan to develop land owned by Dan in Petah Tikva.

And Petah Tikva is not the only one. In 2009, then-mayor of Bat Yam Shlomo Lahiani was arrested for accepting bribes and personal favors.

There are also several major corruption cases against current or former municipal leaders - including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, dating back to the time he served as mayor of Jerusalem - currently under investigation.