Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has accused his long-time bureau chief of being a compulsive gambler who took huge bribes, “a stool pigeon and a criminal who records her own boss.” The accusations were made during a police interrogation that took place about six months ago.
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“I have no doubt that Shula Zaken received a much larger bribe than what emerged in the police [investigation] or the trial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it totaled many hundreds of thousands,” he said of the woman who was his closest aide for decades, but is now the chief prosecution witness against him.
“She gambled systematically in casinos for years,” Olmert added – an accusation Zaken denies. “I had no idea about this; I wouldn’t have kept her on for another day if I’d known it.”
The police interrogation centered on suspicions that Olmert obstructed justice in two previous cases in which he and Zaken were co-defendants. Police suspect he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from friendly businessmen to pay Zaken’s legal fees, and thereby persuaded her not to testify against him in those cases, both of which ended in Olmert’s acquittal.
Later, police suspect, he persuaded her not to sign a plea bargain that would involve testifying against him in a third case in which they were co-defendants, the Holyland corruption case. In that case, he was convicted anyway.
Ultimately, however, Zaken signed a deal to testify against him in one of the earlier cases, in which his acquittal is now under appeal. In that case, he was charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Jerusalem District Court so her testimony could be heard, and it will begin on Monday. She will testify mainly about entries in her diary that were ruled inadmissible the first time because of her refusal to give evidence about them.
During the police investigation six months ago, interrogators suggested a confrontation between Olmert and Zaken.
“I won’t confront a traitorous woman motivated by a desire for revenge,” Olmert responded. “I have no desire to talk to her.”
He did confirm having raised money from friends to pay her legal fees in the earlier trials, estimating that he raised about $100,000, though police believe the actual sum was around $250,000.
But he denied that his motive in doing so was to persuade her not to testify against him, insisting he simply wanted to help a friend. “What, you wouldn’t help a niece or a friend who was in trouble?” he asked the interrogators.
He added that some wealthy businessmen offered to help Zaken of their own accord, without his involvement.
Olmert also confirmed that on the eve of the verdict in the Holyland case, in which he and Zaken were both convicted, he told Zaken he had managed to raise money to finance a monthly allowance for her family while she was in jail. The sum he offered was $10,000 a month – roughly four times the average Israeli salary, though she had a working husband and only one child at home.
“But Zaken’s response was that it wasn’t enough and she needed much more,” Olmert told the police. Moreover, he said, she demanded that the payments start immediately, whereas he thought they should start only once she was actually in jail.
“That’s the first time I understood that there’s something disturbed about her,” he said. “After I saw her unbridled greed, I became leery.”
The interrogator asked where the idea of paying her while she was in jail came from, and Olmert responded, “It was Shula Zaken’s request.”
He acknowledged that the offer was “generous,” but insisted, “This wasn’t at the stage of the trial before her testimony, when it would have been inappropriate.” He said he agreed to it because they had worked together for so many years and now she was going to jail. “That’s my weakness,” he said.
Olmert charged that what finally made Zaken turn against him was that another businessman who opposed Olmert’s politics offered her more money. “I’m convinced she found someone to finance her,” he said. “Think for yourselves about who’s capable of financing her, someone who wants to hurt me politically.”
The interrogator asked if he was referring to Jewish American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, founder of the free Israeli paper Israel Hayom and longtime supporter of Olmert’s political rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You said it,” Olmert replied. “Is he making that newspaper for $150 million for no reason? Now he’s invested much less to eliminate the possibility that this prime minister [Olmert] will return to the political arena.”
Olmert also charged that before he signed a deal with the prosecution, Zaken tried to extort him, sending him a message that “she would stop this campaign, which was meant to put me in jail,” if he paid her $500,000. He refused.
Zaken herself told police that when Olmert offered her the $10,000-a-month allowance via an intermediary, Benny Tavin, she told Tavin, “I’m sick of having to chase after the money each time anew ... I should wait each month for him [Olmert] to give it to me or not give it to me?” She also told Tavin she “doesn’t believe” Olmert’s promises.
Zaken’s attorney, Ofer Bartal, said, “We have no desire to confront Mr. Olmert in his distress. Everything will come clear in and be decided by the court.”
Adelson’s local representative, Dan Raviv, responded, “Sheldon Adelson knows how to appreciate a good joke, but this is a false, malicious and stupid joke ... No such thing ever happened.”
He added that ever since Adelson launched Israel Hayom, “we have heard many libelous and malicious ‘jokes’” of this sort.