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The Tel Aviv District Court yesterday sentenced the key witness in the trial of former finance minister Abraham Hirchson to four years and eight months in prison for theft and fraud, following a plea bargain.

Ovadia Cohen, a Hirchson confidant, admitted stealing NIS 10 million for the minister from Nili, a nonprofit group associated with the National Labor Union. The State Prosecutor's Office is also demanding a similarly severe sentence for Hirchson if convicted.

The plea bargain signed with Cohen stipulates that if the other defendants receive a significantly lighter penalty, the prosecution will consider allowing him to appeal his sentence.

Hirchson is suspected of stealing NIS 2.5 million from the union and Nili while serving as head of the Histadrut labor federation from 1998 to 2005. He faces an indictment for embezzlement, money laundering, falsifying corporate registration, fraud and breach of trust.

Sources familiar with the case said Hirchson's sentence must be equal or harsher than Cohen's. Hirchson is charged with stealing a smaller sum of around NIS 2.5 million. However, while Cohen admitted to stealing for others (including Hirchson), the former finance minister is charged with stealing for himself. In addition, he had a higher position, served as a Knesset member and was Cohen's boss.

Hirchson denied taking money from the National Labor Federation in his statement to the police. But later he changed his version in response to the indictment and said he had taken money, but it was an advance on his retirement package.

The evidentiary stage in Hirchson's trial opened yesterday with Ronit Garti's testimony. She was the first defendant to sign a plea bargain in the affair. At the beginning of the week she was sentenced to six months of community service for helping to falsify corporate documents.

Telling the court how the embezzlement was carried out, Garti said that in 2002 or 2003, when she was still an accountant at the Labor federation, she noticed that sums she was not familiar with were being deducted from the federation's tax accounts at Discount Bank.

"I saw checks that I did not write for about NIS 25,000 or NIS 30,000 coming out of Discount Bank," she said.

She told Cohen about the checks. Cohen referred her to the financial manager, the late Gideon Ben Zur, who was on sick leave at the time.

"Since I didn't know what would happen with Gideon, whose condition was difficult then, I decided to go to Hirchson," she said.

"I told him about it, he said 'thanks, keep me posted.' I did so once or twice more."

Garti said the federation received money that was paid to various organizations affiliated with it for education activities. The money was paid by check and cash to Ben Zur.

"After he'd receive the money he'd call me, ask me to bundle it in rubber bands and put in the safe," she said.

When asked to prepare envelopes for Hirchson, she said that "he would take out of the safe, put [the money] on the table and ask me to help him count it. He had difficulty and asked me to put something like NIS 30,000 in an envelope," she said.

Asked how they counted the money, Garti said that "according to notes, of course, a hundred, two hundred, fifty."

She said they would put rubber bands around the notes and put them, at Hirchson's request, into unaddressed brown envelopes.

Garti said Ben Zur did not tell her what the money was for. "Sometimes he was clearly irritated, he would say 'this is for the big one' or 'now the big one wants money,' but didn't name names," she said.