Can Former Israeli Mayor's Prison Sentence Deter Corruption?

The judges’ message was uncompromising in its severity. In their view, no good deeds can atone for corruption at this level.

Motti Milrod

The Tel Aviv District Court yesterday sentenced former Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani to eight months in prison, accepting the state’s appeal of a sentence of community service only.

In their ruling, judges Dvora Berliner, George Kara and Esther Nachlieli-Khayat sent a message unprecedented in its severity regarding the crime of breach of trust by elected officials. They also rejected Lahiani’s false expressions of regret and expanded the prosecution’s ability to appeal lenient sentences. Finally, they sent a signal to other courts that haven’t yet internalized the requisite level of punishment for public corruption.

Lahiani was convicted in a plea bargain on three counts of breach of trust. Before becoming mayor, he was a property developer who accumulated debts of tens of millions of shekels. After his election, he sought loans from local businessmen who needed something from city hall and then he made decisions on issues affecting his lenders. He also had senior municipal employees who were subordinate to him take out bank loans in their own names and give him the money. He then used this money, 440,000 shekels ($112,000), to repay his own debts while reimbursing the employees in installments.

The original verdict, by Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Benny Sagi, went easy on Lahiani because of his confession, his record of public activity and his unusual plea bargain, which set a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail but no minimum sentence. During the appeal, Lahiani argued that by failing to set a minimum the prosecution knew it was risking a light sentence and therefore had no right to appeal. But the district court judges rejected this argument.

They then ruled that jail time was essential. “This is breach of trust that borders on bribery,” they wrote. “The war on corruption of this nature cannot stop or compromise, and it requires punishment with an unequivocal message.”

Lahiani’s arguments in favor of leniency could reduce the length of his sentence, they added, but “the normative message in this case mandates imprisonment behind bars.”

The judges’ message was uncompromising in its severity. In their view, no good deeds can atone for corruption at this level.

“No positive action can blunt the sting of the demand that workers dependent on the respondent for their living take out bank loans and give them to him,” they wrote. “No positive action can balance out requesting loans from people who need permits for which the respondent is responsible ... The need for a clear statement under these circumstances outweighs all other considerations.”

The judges wrote explicitly that they viewed the case of former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner, who was also convicted of breach of trust in a plea bargain, as the model for sentencing a senior official guilty of such crimes. And in fact, the eight-month prison sentence they gave Lahiani was identical to Dankner’s sentence.

Anyone who has listened to Lahiani’s own statements would conclude that he hasn’t yet grasped the severity of his actions. And indeed, the judges were unimpressed with his stated acceptance of responsibility for his actions, saying it sounded “calculated, minimizing, utilitarian, lacking the characteristics of true regret.” Therefore, they said, it entitled him to no additional leniency beyond that reflected in the plea bargain.

The severity of Lahiani’s sentence contrasts sharply with the lenient sentence imposed one day earlier on Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso. The Haifa District Court convicted Gapso of bribery for having demanded that a city councilman resign if he wanted Gapso to keep his ex-wife, a municipal employee, from being fired. But it sentenced him only to community service, and Judge Oded Gershon decided that because of the unique nature of the crime and the prosecution’s foot-dragging on the case, he would not rule that Gapso’s actions involved moral turpitude — a finding that would have forced the mayor out of office.

Granted, Gapso didn’t take any money for himself. But bribery is a more-serious offense than breach of trust, and Gapso didn’t confess or reach a plea bargain as Lahiani did.

In contrast, even Sagi ruled that Lahiani’s offense involved moral turpitude. The district court agreed, saying this finding was necessary less to punish the criminal than “to protect the public from involvement in public life by someone unfit to serve as a public leader.”

This statement will encourage the prosecution to appeal to the Supreme Court against both Gapso’s light sentence and the lack of a moral turpitude finding.