The Israeli Minister of Hedonism Now Faces Police Investigators

Politicians and businesspeople were not surprised when former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov was arrested by the police last week. His political career featured more scandals than achievements.

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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Stas Misezhnikov enjoying water sports in Eilat.
Stas Misezhnikov enjoying water sports in Eilat.Credit: Yehuda Ben-Itah / Erev Erev Eilat
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

The news that former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov was arrested last week and questioned on suspicion of accepting bribes and fixing government tenders surprised very few people. While a long list of politicians have been in the headlines recently for their roles in various corruption investigations, it is not only the allegations – almost all of which have been published previously in the media and in a state comptroller’s report – but the former minister’s scandalous personal affairs that have haunted his reputation for years.

Misezhnikov was questioned by investigators from Lahav 443 – the national police unit tasked with fighting corruption and organized crime – for the first time last Tuesday. While the media was filled with reports of a former minister being arrested and questioned on corruption charges, only on Thursday was Misezhnikov’s named revealed, because of the law restricting publication of any details for the first 48 hours after arrest.

Yulie Roth, an events producer and close friend of Misezhnikov, was also questioned. Misezhnikov is suspected of rigging ministry tenders in such a way as to give Roth business. Alleged examples of this were a students festival in Eilat and events at the Fashion Channel, one of whose senior executives was also questioned last week. A sitting Knesset member is also suspected of involvement in the affair and is set to be invited to answer police questions under warning of possible criminal suspicion, on matters concerning his position before joining the Knesset.

During his tenure as tourism minister between 2009 and 2012, Misezhnikov was considered very close to Avigdor Lieberman, his leader in Yisrael Beiteinu. But the foreign minister nevertheless decided to keep Misezhnikov’s name off the party slate for the 2013 Knesset election. In doing so, he ended Misezhnikov’s political career, says a source in the party. “It‘s impossible to know what happened between them – everything was very compartmentalized and secret,” explains the source. “The common opinion in Yisrael Beiteinu is that [Misezhnikov] was close to Lieberman also because of the knowledge that it could help him in the business world in the future.“ Colleagues and others previously considered close to Misezhnikov refused to discuss him last week.

“[Misezhnikov] is a person who’s full of himself, someone looking for power and the next prestigious job,” said a member of the Rishon Letzion municipality, where Misezhnikov served from 2003-2006. He described Misezhnikov as the type of “hedonist politician” everyone recognizes from the well-known song by the Israeli rock band T-Slam.

Lieberman reportedly decided to kick Misezhnikov out of the party and Knesset after a very embarrassing 2012 report on Channel 2 relating to his drinking and partying habits while serving as tourism minister. After returning to private life, Misezhnikov went back to the business world. In April 2013, he established a company named Global Paynet, along with strategic consultant Lior Chorev. Other partners were Limor Barzilai, Misezhnikov’s former bureau chief at the Tourism Ministry, who is now an adviser to the mayor of Rishon Letzion, and two other businessmen.

The company planned to market medical insurance to companies overseas, including in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. At first, Misezhnikov and Chorev did market research and met with many reinsurers overseas, but a few months ago the company stopped operations after the two realized its prospects for success were low.

Misezhnikov arrived in Israel at age 13 from Moscow, in 1982, and started his political career 15 years later as a parliamentary aide for former MK Yuri Stern, who served in Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael b’Aliyah party. After two years he started working as a marketing manager for Clalit Health Services in the Gush Dan region, and at the same time completed a master’s degree in business administration from Tel Aviv University. Misezhnikov was also very involved in local politics, now on behalf of Yisrael Beiteinu in his hometown of Rishon Letzion. In 2003, he was elected to the city council on the party’s slate, and three years later elected to the Knesset. In March 2007, he was appointed chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, which gave him large national exposure. He was chairman for only a year, during which time he was best-known for his close ties with lobbyists.

In the police investigation now underway, Misezhnikov’s lawyer says he is cooperating fully with the police and would continue to do so, “to complete the investigation as quickly as possible. He has complete faith in the police and is convinced that, when all the facts are known, the police will reach the conclusion that there is no basis for suspicion against him.” At the end of the questioning he was released to his home, with no restrictions set.

The police have been running an undercover investigation into the affair since the release of a highly critical report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira in October 2013. The report was written after Channel 10 television’s investigative program “Hamakor” (The Source) revealed two years before that the Tourism Ministry had provided almost 1 million shekels (about $274,000) in support for a student festival in Eilat, run by the National Students Union.

Roth was hired by a private company to produce the event, for which she received some 70,000 shekels. The ministry’s financial support was considered extremely unusual: It provided 80% of the budget for the festival and Misezhnikov personally promised to pay the company that hired Roth, even before the company officially asked for ministry assistance. The students union reportedly served as a channel for funneling the money. The festival budget stated that Roth would be the producer, along with the amount she would be paid.

Misezhnikov also spent an evening at the festival with Roth, meeting the members of T-Slam. The state comptroller leveled harsh criticism at Misezhnikov, and especially his personal relationship with Roth. “As to the matter of the acquaintance between the tourism minister and the producer, and all the considerations related to the participation of the ministry in financing the student festival, doubts arise in everything related to the proper behavior of the minister,” the comptroller’s report states.

Nightclubs and drinking

Misezhnikov’s tenure at the Tourism Ministry was accompanied by a large number of embarrassing personal scandals, even if there is no suspicion of criminal activities in these cases. Channel 2’s September 2012 report saw Misezhnikov’s bodyguards claim that the minister often got drunk, spent his time in nightclubs and socialized with strippers. They alleged that his behavior often caused him to arrive late to official meetings. One bodyguard said the minister even missed a cabinet meeting on the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit because he was at a social event in the north, with plenty of alcohol flowing. The bodyguards complained that Misezhnikov would disappear, making it hard for them to do their jobs.

“I’m young, and after working hours I want to go out with friends and drink and eat, and on the weekend I also like to go dancing. I don’t want to go to sleep at 10 P.M. when I’m 43,” said Misezhnikov, in response to the investigative report. “I never got drunk in public. They never had to carry me out – neither my bodyguards nor friends – and I’ve never visited a strip club. That’s the truth.”

The Channel 2 report came after a long list of other media reports about Misezhnikov, most of which concerned embarrassing events that happened on his overseas trips as tourism minister, leading to complaints to the Foreign Ministry. In one case, he spent the weekend in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, without holding a single official meeting or event.

Two months before that, in November 2009, he traveled as part of the official delegation of President Shimon Peres to Brazil and Argentina, which also included dozens of Israeli businesspeople. He spent much of his time in the bars of Rio de Janeiro, returning to his hotel very late at night and causing great embarrassment to the delegation on several occasions. He was late for meetings and missed official events where Peres was present.

One of the embarrassing situations occurred during a soccer game the presidential delegation was invited to, after which a cocktail party was held by the mayor in honor of the visiting Israelis. Before the game, the convoy of businesspeople had to wait for an hour outside the hotel before Misezhnikov arrived. After that, he left in the middle of the game and didn’t appear at the party.

Another embarrassing situation came in Buenos Aires, at a ceremony in memory of the 85 victims of the July 1994 AMIA bombing. Misezhnikov became angry that the ceremony was starting late and, to the amazement of members of the local Jewish community, simply got up and walked out.

Stas Misezhnikov. Tourism minister from 2009-2012 but now facing allegations of accepting bribes.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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