Shula Zaken’s Testimony Will Unveil Shadowy World of Israel's Leadership

Ehud Olmert's former secretary spent two years at the Jerusalem District Court as the accused alongside 'the man who was God to me.' This time, she's playing a new role: state witness.

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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (3rd R) and his ex bureau chief Shula Zaken (L) wait to hear his verdict at the Tel Aviv District Court, March 31, 2014.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (3rd R) and his ex bureau chief Shula Zaken (L) wait to hear his verdict at the Tel Aviv District Court, March 31, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Shula Zaken will arrive on Monday from the Neve Tirza women’s prison to a place she knows well: the Jerusalem District Court in east Jerusalem, where for two years she was present as the accused alongside “the man who was God to me,” the man for whom she said she had agreed to keep silent, to endure complications and risk sitting behind bars.

But this time, she will play a new role, cooperating with law enforcement authorities by giving testimony in the Talansky affair. She is expected this morning to testify to the years spent with Ehud Olmert in the Jerusalem municipality and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. In May, Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison on two counts of bribery in the Holyland corruption case.

Zaken will tell about the small safe that she kept in her office with a permanent amount of money for the minister’s immediate needs; about the door Olmert closed behind him when the American businessman Morris Talansky came to visit; about the envelopes with dollars that her boss would give her after every such visit; the safe hidden in the office of the attorney who was a close associate of Olmert’s, Uri Messer, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were kept; the journal in which she recorded the details of the path the money took, which, had not its existence and significance been whispered to the police, the Talansky affair would not have come to light and Olmert would have continued in office as prime minister.

On Monday, Zaken will have her first chance explain the traces she left behind. She is very likely also to explain why she decided to keep quiet during interrogation by the police in the spring of 2008, when she and Olmert were still in the Prime Minister’s Office. “I was educated by him [Olmert] to keep [quiet] and not to tell, and that’s what I did for more than 30 years,” she explained to the police the set of values she had internalized.

“My lawyer at the time, Micha Fettman, begged me to give a version to show you that my involvement in the matter should not have brought me as far as an indictment. Ehud would not agree under any circumstance,” she said.

According to Zaken, once at that time she met Olmert at the wedding of the son of a friend of theirs. “We were not allowed to talk [to each other] then. I went fairly close to him and crying, I told him that Fettman was insisting that I give a version because the cost of my silence would be high and that I didn’t deserve it because it’s not my case. Ehud said to me, a little angry, stop with the hysterics and wait patiently.”

Zaken subsequently made a decision that complicated her legal situation even more: not to testify in her own defense to answer to accusations against her and Olmert in the Talansky and Rishon Tours cases. Under questioning she said that she took this destructive step under express instructions from Olmert as well, at that he had also promised to pay for her legal defense and the needs of her family.

Olmert vehemently denies all charges against him.

On Monday, liberated from his shadow and after signing a plea bargain that reduces the charges against her, Zaken will for the first time tell from her point of view about the relationship between her former patron and Talansky.

According to Zaken, Talansky’s role was to collect checks from Olmert’s many wealthy supporters abroad and exchange them for cash. Zaken claims that Olmert even told her he was furious over the high commission Talansky was taking. She would take the money she received from Olmert after every such Talansky visit and pass it on to Messer, Olmert’ s personal banker, who from time to time was asked to change the dollars into shekels at a random money-changer and to bring the haul back to the minister’s office.

According to Zaken, the money went for a variety of uses for her boss, both political and personal: a conference organized by the loyal Avraham Hirchson, payment for a tailor who made suits, purchase of cigars, paying for a political adviser on the Russian sector, pocket money for private trips abroad.

Zaken herself received a payment of $30,000 from the fund every year before Passover as compensation for the cut in pay she had to take when she moved with Olmert from the municipality to national government. She reached this understanding with Olmert at a meeting they had at a luxury hotel in Jerusalem.

In addition to Zaken’s testimony, the court will also hear on Monday and in the coming sessions significant portions of the dialogue between the two, which Zaken recorded for a rainy day, dialogues that senior law enforcement officials who heard them called “incriminating and revealing the way in which Olmert treated Zaken like a marionette.”

Only when these recordings are played can we know whether the content is as shocking as they say, and whether Olmert did indeed buy Zaken’s silence in the Talansky affair with money obtained from tycoons who were his close associates. Olmert will of course reject this thesis and claim that he treated Zaken as he would any family member in trouble.

The Supreme Court ruled on Sunday that former Olmert’s legal team would have to return to the prosecution private emails of his former aide Zaken, which they had received by mistake from Zaken’s lawyers.

Justice Isaac Amit accepted the appeal by the State Prosecutor’s Office and ordered Olmert’s attorneys to return within 48 hours a CD containing some 3,000 emails.

Olmert’s attorneys Eyal Rosovsky and Eli Zohar had refused to return the CD, arguing that it was relevant to the hearing over the Talanksy “money envelopes” affair, which reopened after Zaken agreed to testify against her former boss. The prosecution for its part said continued possession of the CD constituted a breach of Zaken’s right to privacy and the emails, some of which were exchanges between her and her lawyer, Ofer Bartal, were not relevant to the Talansky affair.

Last week the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the CD must be returned to the prosecution by Sunday, and until then, the defense could look at the content of the CD but not copy it.

“The case at hand is pathological when as the result of an error of the prosecution a situation is created in which the defense is the party demanding to decide what in the material is relevant,” Amit wrote in his ruling on Sunday.

The CD should be returned so as not to frighten a witness before she gives her testimony, or compromise attorney-client privilege or her privacy or the privacy of third parties “beyond what is necessary for the process,” he wrote.

Amit instructed the state to examine the material again and decide what of the correspondence was relevant to Olmert’s defense based on the mention of Olmert’s name or the names of Zaken’s associate Uri Mantzur, and Rabbi Ralbag, with whom Zaken consulted.

The justice also criticized the fact that the state had created the impression that it had mistakenly included all the email messages on the CD, when it had intended to convey only the relevant messages. “Such a mistake could erode propriety and fairness on the part of the prosecution, and thus the need to be strict in the matter,” Amit wrote.

Amit did not issue an explicit ruling with regard to the extent of privacy to which a state’s witness is entitled, in comparison, for example, to a complainant in a sex crime case. However, Amit did rule that the public has an interest in protecting and encouraging a state’s witness, and therefore that witness’ privacy should not be compromised. However, because a state’s witness chooses that status, as opposed to the complainant in a sex crime, such a witness gives up some of the expectation of privacy he or she would have under normal circumstances.

Zaken is expected later in the week to be cross-examined in a blitz by Olmert’s attorneys. They will certainly try to paint her as an interested party with no restraint who is framing Olmert to extricate herself from a long prison term, and as a woman who committed the sin of corruption behind the backs of her betters. This tactic, if invoked, could turn out to be a double-edged sword: Zaken, as opposed to other state’s witnesses who gave up all their secrets when they moved to the other side (Moshe Sela in the Benizri affair, Shmuel Dechner in the Holyland case), seems not yet to have told all about the 30 years she spent in the shadow of the highest circles.

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