A court on Wednesday extended the remand of a senior executive at a Jerusalem-based charity who was arrested this week on suspicion of stealing tens of millions of shekels from international donors.
The official, who is linked to the Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network, did not attend the hearing at the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court. He remains under observation at a central Israeli hospital after he reportedly complained of "chest pains" during Sunday's arrest, according to court documents.
A court-imposed gag order remained in effect Thursday, barring the media from disclosing the suspects' name.
The official and nine other employees of the Jerusalem-based nonprofit are accused by Israel's national fraud unit of conducting a "massive scheme" to mislead Israeli and international donors about the scope of its aid to Israel's poor and Holocaust survivors.
Operators of the charity are accused of pocketing "tens of millions of shekels" in donations and selling food earmarked for Holocaust survivors and the needy, according to court documents.
Other charges leveled against the suspects include fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, forgery and deception, police investigators said at the court hearing.
"In my opinion, it is reasonable to suspect that the suspects were involved in the crimes of which they are accused," Judge Sarit Zamir said Sunday, as she extended the remand at a hearing in the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court.
Hazon Yeshaya - established in 1997 by Abraham Israel, an Egyptian-born businessman in New York - has a number of "Friends of" organizations in English-speaking countries across the globe, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. Last year, some of these affiliated donor organizations began to suspect that there were financial irregularities.
The "Canadian Friends" of Hazon Yeshaya reportedly sent a "charity investigator" to Israel last summer to probe the operations of the organization, and in November sent private investigators to "infiltrate" the nonprofit, according to a December report by the U.K-based Jewish Chronicle Online.
In December, Haaretz reported that the organization's "U.K. Friends" group of supporters had announced plans to halt all transfers to Israel until the 15-year-old charity agreed to an external audit. At the time, a spokesman for the group, Shimon Cohen, said some U.K. supporters had "heard rumors" of financial irregularities. While it did not accuse the organization of impropriety at the time, the group demanded Hazon Yeshaya submit to the audit to "make sure the money they are raising is being used correctly," according to Cohen, who estimated that the group had been raising about 1 million pounds a year for the charity. The U.K. group reportedly disbanded after the independent auditing firm it hired, the Israel-based Deloitte Brightman Almagor Zohar, claimed Hazon Yeshaya did not cooperate fully with its audit, according to the Chronicle.
On its web site, Hazon Yeshaya claims to operate "Israel's most efficient network of soup kitchens, vocational training courses, free dental clinics and food distribution centers." It lists the late Israeli President Ephraim Katzir as a "Former Honorary Director," and Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel as an "Honorary Director."
"The staff and volunteers of Hazon Yeshaya have done so much by providing meals to those for whom hunger would otherwise be a painful daily reality," reads a testimonial by Wiesel, next to his photograph. "That is why I support Hazon Yeshaya in any way I can. All those who care about Israel will surely appreciate the urgency of your work." Neither Wiesel nor any other honorary members of the charity's star-studded corps of supporters are suspected of wrongdoing.
As of Thursday, Hazon Yeshaya's web site made no mention of the arrests. Its "News" section included three prior statements rebutting accusations of impropriety.
"The Directors of Hazon Yeshaya regret the amount of staff time and charity money that is being wasted in responding to irresponsible rumours that are entirely without foundation, and hopes to continue its important work to help Israel's neediest citizens without further distractions," according to a statement posted on December 19.
Stuart Saffer, a partner with Israel Strategic Initiatives, a Jerusalem-based fundraising consultancy, says the damage wrought by the scandal will have implications for Hazon Yeshaya and other nonprofit organizations.
"Acts of corruption, like those now being leveled at Hazon Yeshaya, are extremely damaging both for the actual organization and its hard-earned outstanding reputation, as well as for the very needy end-recipients who will undoubtedly suffer due to the inevitable drop in donations that such a scandal may bring about in its wake," said Saffer. "Each specific nonprofit organization will have to labor much harder to reassure its donors that the correct checks and balances are properly in place and that such scandals could not happen inside their organization."