Israeli Mayors Facing Corruption Charges Can Run in Elections, AG Rules

Court told that the charges against the mayors of Upper Nazareth and Ramat Hasharon are not 'excessively serious' and should not prevent them from running.

Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso and Ramat Hasharon Mayor Yitzhak Rochberger cannot be legally blocked from seeking re-election next month, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein told the High Court of Justice on Sunday. Both mayors are facing corruption charges.

An expanded panel of seven justices is due to hear petitions against the two on Tuesday.

With regard to Gapso, who was charged in June with accepting bribes, the state’s position is that the charges against him are not serious enough to counter the presumption of innocence he must be accorded and his right to stand for election. This makes the decision last month by the Upper Nazareth City Council not to remove Gapso a reasonable one.

“At this point, the decision by the council is within the realm of reasonable,” Weinstein wrote. “The violation for which the indictment was filed against Mr. Gapso is serious because of its link to his public position. However, it is not excessively serious, given that at issue is a single instance (as opposed to a series of instances over time) and the alleged quid pro quo received is not of such a scope that makes it excessively serious.”

This position was qualified by the term “at this point,” because in June the prosecution said that the state prosecutor was weighing whether to file another indictment against Gapso for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes. Gapso is still expected to be given a chance to explain his actions before the indictment proceeds. If another indictment is filed against Gapso, prosecutors said, the state’s position might be reconsidered.

By law, a mayor is not required to resign when indicted, but only if he is convicted of a crime considered to be one of moral turpitude. However, Section 22 of the Local Authorities Law states that the local council has the right to remove a mayor from his post.

In Rochberger’s case, the Ramat Hasharon City Council hasn’t even convened to discuss removing him, although the indictment against him, for false reporting in corporate documents and breach of trust, was filed in May. Weinstein stated that convening the city council for this purpose is a legal obligation, but since the elections are only six weeks from now, Rochberger’s suitability, if he is re-elected, will have to be determined by the next elected city council. The fact that the council has not convened cannot constitute grounds for forcing a candidate to withdraw his candidacy, Weinstein said.

With regard to Rochberger, Weinstein wrote, “On the surface, and because there is no positive determination in this case that the authority head is no longer worthy of serving, the circumstances of the case before us do not obligate us and are not suited for ruling on the question of if, and under what circumstances, one can force a candidate to refrain from submitting his candidacy for election.”

The wave of petitions against mayors facing charges, which have been filed by the Ometz good-government group, opposition members on local councils, Liran Silverman, who is running for mayor in Ramat Hasharon, as well as by the Movement for Quality Government, was generated because the High Court did not establish any new rule in the case of Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, whose candidacy had been challenged earlier.

During the High Court hearings on his case two months ago, Bar, who is charged with bribery, fraud, breach of trust and other crimes, agreed not to seek re-election, but he was not forced to resign and remains mayor until next month’s elections. As a result, his case did not set any new norms. Even so, the court made clear this compromise had been sought only because the charges against Bar were very serious, alleging that he’d received NIS 1.9 million in bribes, and were closely tied to his performance as mayor.

The result reached in Bar’s case may influence the future of Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani, if the latter is indicted on charges of large-scale bribery and tax evasion.

Ofer Vaknin
Tomer Appelbaum