In asking Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rosen on Thursday to accept her plea deal in the Holyland corruption case, Shula Zaken sometimes made her long-time boss Ehud Olmert’s offices as a minister and mayor of Jerusalem sound like the backroom of a shady money changer. Olmert, who went on to be prime minister, was last week sentenced to six years in prison in the case.
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Zaken said she used to receive packages of cash from Shmuel Dechner — a businessman working on behalf of the developers of the Holyland apartment complex in Jerusalem who died after turning state’s witness in the case — and count the bills. After that, she would go into Olmert’s office, close the heavy wooden door and give him the bundle. He would count the money, set part of it aside for his personal needs and ask her to put the rest in a safe in the office of his lawyer Uri Messer.
Zaken arrived in court accompanied by her two sons, brother Yoram Karashi and a couple close friends. It was her friends who encouraged her to reach a lenient plea bargain with the prosecution. If Zaken had woken up a year ago, it is very likely that she would not have had to spend a single night in Neve Tirza Prison. If she had woken up five years ago, she would have been able save Karshi from being convicted in the 2010 Tax Authority corruption case and sitting in prison for years alongside former Finance Minister Abraham Hirschson. But Zaken, as she told the court on Friday, was entangled in the web of loyalty to the man who taught her everything, and heaped his grace on her.
Zaken described Olmert as a demanding boss, but also as a generous person who knew how to take care of those close to him and provided for them from his own money. Zaken said Olmert and his law partners helped her buy her first apartment with their own money. When she wanted to move to a bigger apartment — where she still lives — Olmert asked Dechner, said Zaken, and he gave her a huge sum to buy it. The same apartment was renovated by a contractor friend of hers who she later tried to save from a criminal prosecution in the Tax Authority affair.
“A crime generator,” Rozen called Zaken.
Rozen ran the epilogue of the Holyland trial with a trained hand. The more he expressed his doubts about the lenient plea bargain the prosecution signed with Zaken, the more details those sitting in the courtroom heard from her recordings and latest testimony. One of the tapes raised a serious suspicion that Olmert asked Zaken to incriminate herself by testifying that she took 60,000 shekels that he received from Dechner for herself.
“The 60,000 [shekels] were handed to Ehud Olmert,” Zaken told the judge. She added that she knew from both parties that Olmert asked Dechner to cover the debts of his bankrupt brother Yossi Olmert and that she was asked to coordinate their meeting at the Apropo Coffee House in Tel Aviv to exchange the bribe.
“She supports want I don’t need support for,” Rozen replied. The judge said he did not doubt for a moment that Olmert and Zaken were obstructing justice behind the scenes, comparing their actions to the way an organized crime family pays its soldiers’ legal fees to keep them from testifying against the boss.
But despite his doubts about the plea bargain and the confidence he displayed, in the end Rozen accepted the deal. Like the prosecution, he knows the final judgment in Israeli law is a crapshoot, and certain combinations of Supreme Court justices could reverse his decisions and acquit Olmert, deeming the evidence circumstantial. What he called iron-clad proof other judges could scrap as paper-thin.
The recordings Zaken supplied, like the stories she told about Olmert’s activities, will serve as a safety net for Rozen and the prosecution in an expected appeal of the Holyland trial’s verdict and sentence, and as an answer to the army of white-collar lawyers enlisted in the past few weeks to defend Olmert and present the evidence as full of holes.
Zaken’s recordings and testimony will most likely also serve to support the appeal against Olmert’s acquittal in the Rishon Tours and Talansky corruption cases. The three Jerusalem District Court judges, headed by Moussia Arad, set an impossibly high bar for the evidence in those cases: Prove that OImert used the bundles of cash that he stowed in his secret kitty in Messer’s office for private purposes, rather than political ones. This was a fantastical demand, which seems to have been made with just one purpose in mind — acquitting Olmert. The truth is that there is no way to determine whether money given in cash and in secret to a politician and hidden in a secret stash was intended for personal or political use. Maybe now the prosecution can do the impossible and prove the secret stash was in any case illegal.
Before she left the courtroom, possibly for the last time, Zaken asked her family and late parents for forgiveness. “I just want my life back,” she said. It is rather unlikely she will get her wish anytime soon.