State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has been holding up a report on seemingly excessive expenditures at the prime minister’s residences for weeks now, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer asked him not to publish it before the March election.
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A source familiar with the report said its publication before Election Day could damage Netanyahu’s image.
About 18 months ago, after receiving complaints on the matter, Shapira announced he would look into the allegations of excessive spending. The complaints related to both the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem and the state-funded portion of expenses at the Netanyahu family’s private homes in Caesarea and Jerusalem.
The report was recently completed and Shapira has already received Netanyahu’s response, so there’s seemingly no reason why it couldn’t be published. Nevertheless, Shapira hasn’t done so.
Haaretz has learned that Netanyahu’s attorney, David Shimron, recently asked the comptroller not to publish the report until after the election. Shimron also asked Shapira to delay publication of another report – popularly known as the Bibi-Tours report – which dealt with overseas trips by Netanyahu and his wife that were paid for by wealthy businesspeople or nongovernmental organizations during the years when Netanyahu was finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government.
The report on expenditures at the prime minister’s residences looked into several seemingly unjustified outlays of taxpayer funds at the official residence, including hundreds of thousands of shekels for buying meals from restaurants, tens of thousands of shekels for flower arrangements, thousands of shekels for scented candles and large expenditures on hairdressers and shoes. The report also examined the use of state funds for various purposes in Netanyahu’s private residences.
In January 2014, Shapira’s office sent a draft of the report to the Prime Minister’s Office. Usually, the final report is published a few months after the report’s subject – in this case, Netanyahu – receives the draft. But sources knowledgeable about proceedings in the comptroller’s office said that Shapira handled this report, as well as others related to Netanyahu, with kid gloves.
Netanyahu interviewed Shapira for the comptroller’s job and then decided to support him, mobilizing his Likud faction to back the former district court judge in the Knesset vote over a rival candidate, former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin. Two attorneys close to Netanyahu – Shimron and Yechiel Gutman – also worked energetically to get Shapira elected.
Soon after being appointed, Shapira appointed Gutman’s son, Matan, as an aide to the director general of the comptroller’s office. Today, Matan Gutman is considered the most influential person in Shapira’s office circle.
A few months after taking office, Shapira also ousted the comptroller’s special adviser on corruption, former police commander Nahum Levy, who was responsible for the Bibi-Tours probe. Shapira’s predecessor, Micha Lindenstrauss, had rejected Netanyahu’s request that he remove Levy from all probes relating to the premier. The basis for that request, submitted via Shimron, was that as a police officer, Levy had recommended indicting Netanyahu and his wife in a case involving the handling of official gifts given the prime minister. That case was eventually closed for lack of evidence.
Nevertheless, Shapira has said in the past that he sees no reason to recuse himself from dealing with issues related to Netanyahu or Shimron.
Though the report on spending at the prime minister’s residences has been completed, the Bibi-Tours report will apparently be finished only in another few weeks.
Sources familiar with the issue said Shapira is leaning toward acceding to Shimron’s request and refraining from publishing any reports on Netanyahu until after the election. Nevertheless, they added, public pressure could persuade him to at least publish the report on the prime minister’s residences before the March 17 vote.
The State Comptroller’s Office responded, “The comptroller doesn’t descend into the political arena and doesn’t participate in it. The work of auditing and publishing audit reports is done in an orderly fashion with no connection to or dependence on political issues, including the holding of elections. The audit work on both the reports mentioned is continuing in an orderly fashion.
“Since the attorney general has finished dealing with the issue of the prime minister’s trips, that draft report was sent to the prime minister for his response. The state comptroller’s report on expenditures at the prime minister’s residences has been completed, and the comptroller will decide when to publish it in the coming days. We would remind you that the comptroller, former Judge Shapira, decided to publish the report on the Harpaz document before the election for the 19th Knesset,” in 2013. That report dealt with the dysfunctional relationship between then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
This is the second time since early elections were called that law enforcement agencies have gone easy on Netanyahu. Recently, the prosecution asked the Jerusalem Labor Court to postpone Sara Netanyahu’s affidavit and testimony in a suit against the Prime Minister’s Office filed by the former superintendent of the prime minister’s residence, Meni Naftali.
“During this period, extra care must be taken so that legal proceedings won’t be used for other purposes foreign to the proceedings, inter alia influencing political moves,” the prosecution wrote in its brief, which was approved by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. “The various motives and interests behind the many reports in the media, and especially the personal interviews with the plaintiff, show a clear effort to harness the legal proceedings to advance these motives and interests; they also increase the damage to the legal proceedings and are even liable to do real harm to the defendants’ defense.”