Israeli Ministers Blamed in Carmel Fire Report to Get 2.5 Times Top Refund for Legal Fees

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In a rare move, a Justice Ministry committee has approved the reimbursement of legal fees 2.5 times higher than the maximum figure set by the Finance Ministry's accountant general for three ministers implicated in the state comptroller's Carmel fire report.

Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, former Finance Minister Yuval Stienitz and former Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch will be reimbursed NIS 50,000 each for their legal fees in preparing their response to the report.

The committee did, however, reject Yishai's demand for a reimbursement of NIS 326,000 and Steinitz's demand of NIS 60,000.

The reimbursement committee explained its decision by pointing to the fact that the comptroller's report included several stages – the initial report and the final report – and that since it determined that Yishai and Stienitz bear special responsibility for the consequences of the fire, they needed significant legal representation. The committee added that the "special responsibility"designation for the three ministers was "a legal novelty demanding increased legal advice and representation."

In November 2011 the government recognized the need to reimburse legal fees for those required to respond to state comptroller reports, an update of a decision from a decade ago. Recently, the reimbursement rates were updated again to NIS 400 per hour, to be capped at NIS 10,000. In special cases that ceiling may be raised but cannot exceed NIS 20,000.

But on top of this, the accountant general added a clause that allows the committee to approve a higher reimbursement rate "in unusual cases in which the complexities of the process or special circumstances justify such an increase." This approval can be attained only when the committee approves in advance the cost of the legal fees.

Yishai's request for reimbursement indicated that after the release of the first draft of the report, the ministry hired the law firm Eshbol Borovsky for NIS 98,100 plus tax for 240 hours of work.

After the final draft was released, the law office of Gideon Fisher was added to the team. The legal fees came to NIS 228,000 plus tax. The interior minister's combined legal fees totaled NIS 326,000, not including tax.

Former Finance Minister Steinitz requested a reimbursement of NIS 60,000. Following the initial report, Steinitz hired Prof. Ariel Bendor, an expert on administrative law from Bar Ilan University, to represent him, paying him NIS 30,000 not including tax. Bendor submitted Steinitz's response to the initial draft and represented him at a hearing with the state comptroller's staff.

Following the response to the initial draft, the state comptroller published a corrected initial draft. To prepare his response to the final draft, Steinitz hired attorney Zvi Agmon, one of the leading lawyers in Israel in administrative law, paying him an additional NIS 30,000, not including tax.

The exceptional sum approved by the committee is particularly surprising in the case of former Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who requested reimbursement of legal costs without noting the sum, saying "the law office is not asking for compensation beyond the sum set by the committee." The State Comptroller determined that Aharonovitchbore special responsibility in the initial report, but downgraded it to general responsibility in the corrected draft and final report.

A fire rages in the Carmel Mountains, December 2010.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

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