When presiding some two years ago over what would be the highly complex and controversial trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Holyland affair – Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court Judge Abraham Heiman was right: He declared that the affair was one of the worst corruption cases in Israel’s history.
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Indeed, Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rosen said after he convicted the former premier Monday that bribery had penetrated Israel’s system of government like a hot knife through soft butter.
The unprecedented effort by Olmert and his emissaries to undermine the credibility of the state’s witness, Shmuel Dechner – credibility that was undermined in any case – was futile. In Rosen’s view, the prosecution was able to back up much of the witness’ testimony with strong evidence that was enough to put its veracity beyond reasonable doubt.
In this prominent and thorny case, over which the previous state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, was personally responsible, the painstaking work led by Tel Aviv district prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari, paid off.
Dechner did not live to see the end of the trial, but in dying, he left a prison sentence behind to the defendants in the Holyland case.
On the basis of Rosen’s harsh terminology, one can deduce that the bribery offense of which Olmert was convicted will likely mean real prison time.
By the way, it is true that statistically, the Tel Aviv District Court is considered to be tougher than its Jerusalem counterpart – not only in the rate of convictions of white-collar criminals, but also in the severity of the punishment meted out to them.
There is no doubt that the State Prosecutor’s Office will ask that Olmert be given a minimal prison sentence of about a year.
Chronologically, Olmert’s 2012 conviction in a Jerusalem court of fraud and other charges in the so-called investments center case – during his term as industry, labor and trade minister – related to an offense that was committed after the one of which he was convicted by Rosen. This time around, the charge referred to crimes committed when he was mayor of Jerusalem.
Now let us try to make some sense of these cases. The bribery conviction delivered Monday can be combined with the conviction in Jerusalem two years ago to paint the picture of a cunning and cynical individual, who got ahead thanks to illicit practices – first in the Knesset, as mayor of Israel’s capital and then in a succession of important government ministries – and made it to the top. His meteoric political career has now left a trail of corruption in its wake.
The financial assistance businessman Dechner extended to Yossi Olmert at his older brother’s request was at the center of this ruling. As mayor, Ehud Olmert asked Dechner to help his brother, who had sunk deep in debt. Dechner transferred more than half-a-million shekels to the younger Olmert. In exchange, the mayor agreed to promote construction of the luxury Holyland residential project in the city, Dechner’s pet project.
In its coverage of the verdict Monday, Israel's Channel 2 asked veteran attorney Ram Caspi, who is close to Olmert, where the checks were that Dechner gave to Yossi, and why there was no proof those checks had been debited from Dechner’s bank account.
This issue is relevant: Among other claims, the lawyers representing the former premier in the Holyland case contended that Dechner made up the story of the bribes given to Yossi Olmert – based, among other things, on the fact that there was no proof that the checks (even if they had been made out) had actually left Dechner’s account.
We should pay attention to this claim, because it may constitute the seed of an appeal that may be sown by Olmert’s people.
In this sense, the Holyland trial was the complete opposite of the Jerusalem trial, in which Olmert was acquitted on charges of fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and falsifying corporate records in the Rishon Tours double-billing case and the Talansky affair.
In the courtroom in Jerusalem, it was proven incontrovertibly that cash-filled envelopes were passed given by American businessman Moshe Talansky to the premier. Although this was confirmed, Olmert was acquitted, and immediately declared in a press conference: “There were no cash envelopes.”
However, in the Holyland trial, as mentioned, the checks Yossi Olmert received were never found, and Dechner’s account was not debited. Still, Judge Rozen examined every single bit of the abundant circumstantial evidence and the evasive testimonies provided to him, and reached the conclusion that Olmert had asked for the money, Dechner had given it and the prime minister's brother had received it.
Bottom line: There were checks, and there was bribery.
Monday marked the end of weeks of feverish talks between Shula Zaken, Olmert’s longtime bureau chief and personal assistant, and the state prosecutor – talks that ended with Zaken agreeing to turn state’s witness, making Olmert’s situation worse.
What happened to Zaken’s plea bargain? Rozen has beaten a retreat. By law, a judge is not bound to honor such agreements passed on by the state prosecution, even when they were made with the defendants’ full consent. In this case, the judge does not have many reasons to treat Zaken leniently. She did not make his work any easier. On the contrary: Her testimony was tough and problematic. Zaken did not save Rozen or the judicial system one iota of effort to prove the corruption. Her plea bargain came too late.
Still, from the public viewpoint, the plea bargain can't be written off because it could lead to an additional investigation of the former premier that will focus on obstruction of justice.
Be that as it may, today Ehud Olmert has gone from a serial suspect to a serial criminal.