Micha Lindenstrauss
Micha Lindenstrauss Photo by Michal Fattal
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State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has asked the prime minister and justice minister to delay the approval of a new ethics code for ministers and deputy ministers, saying it would let ministers monitor their own ethics.

The code the cabinet will consider later this month would take matters such as ministerial conflicts of interest out of the state comptroller's office and transfer them to a cabinet-appointed committee.

The cabinet will consider the code this Sunday or next, in the midst of Lindenstrauss' investigation into allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illegally obtained campaign donations and traveled at the expense of private businessmen.

The code, put together by a team headed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, authorizes a new ethics committee, whose members would be appointed by the prime minister, to approve ministers' and deputy ministers' trips abroad at the expense of donors.

Lindenstrauss says the new regulations raise fears that a cabinet-appointed committee that relies on the cabinet secretariat would not properly address ministers' conflict-of-interest issues.

In a letter, Lindenstrauss urged Neeman, Netanyahu and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to hold up the ethics code's approval until several issues are debated and clarified. One of the code's most problematic issues is the setting up of the ethics committee, he wrote.

Sources familiar with the situation said yesterday that there was no reason not to bring the code to the cabinet for approval, and that Netanyahu relies on Neeman's rulings.

In 1977, the cabinet adopted an ethics code based on a report by a committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Asher. That panel sought to prevent conflicts of interest in the work of ministers and deputy ministers.

Line of duty

The code stipulates what ministers may and may not do in the line of duty - mainly the obligation to do their work without prejudice, avoid conflicts of interest and not take on another job. One rule says a committee appointed by the state comptroller will also be authorized to exempt a minister, in exceptional cases, from complying with the rules.

In 2006, a committee headed by former Justice Meir Shamgar crafted a ministers' ethics code. A draft was submitted to the cabinet in 2008. In 2009, Netanyahu ordered that a ministerial committee be set up, headed by Neeman, to implement the Shamgar Committee's code.

The committee formulated rules based on the Shamgar Committee's code, but made several changes.

According to the new rules, an ethics committee of three will be set up, headed by a retired Supreme Court justice, to examine complaints of ethics breaches and submit an opinion to the prime minister. The committee's members will be appointed by the prime minister, after consultation with the comptroller.

The code stipulates that ministers' business trips funded by anyone but the state require the committee's approval, after it examines whether the funding entails a conflict of interest.

If a minister takes a family member on a trip abroad, the relative's trip will not be funded by the state or the entities that invited or financed the junket, except when the relative's trip is required by protocol or has been approved by the committee.

The committee's work will be coordinated by the cabinet secretariat. Before making its decisions, which will be final, the committee will hear the state comptroller's opinion about the case at hand.

The Ometz good governance watchdog recently told Neeman that the ethics committee to be appointed by the cabinet apparently creates a dependency. Legal sources said the new ethics committee would be dependent on the cabinet - so in effect the ministers would be supervising their own conduct.

The Justice Ministry replied that Neeman's committee had adopted the Shamgar Committee's recommendations. The fact that the ethics committee would be appointed by the cabinet would not detract from its independence, just as the cabinet's appointment of the attorney general does not detract from his independence.