At Trade, Olmert Helped Lawyer's Clients Make Millions

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is suspected of furthering interests worth millions for associates of his close friend, attorney Uri Messer, while serving as minister of of industry and trade, according to a Haaretz investigation. In all the cases examined, then trade minister Olmert participated in meetings that involved entrepreneurs and attorney Messer, on the one hand, and officials of the Ministry of Industry and Trade on the other.

Notwithstanding the regulations regarding possible conflict of interests, Olmert did not recuse himself from discussions on requests to further business interests of associates of his close friend, Messer, who is also the prime minister's personal attorney. Below are some examples:

1. In 2003 Olmert was presented with a request from businessman Ephraim Feinblum to grant preferred status to a factory he planned to set up in Dimona. The relevant officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade - the heads of the chemical and environment sections, as well as the director of the Investment Center - expressed their opposition to the request. In practice, preferred status involves a grant of NIS 15 million in state funds. Feinblum hired attorney Messer.

In response to a Haaretz inquiry, Feinblum said that Messer "is doing a job for me. Expediting a meeting and coming with me to that meeting." Indeed, at the meeting held in Olmert's office in July 2003, attorney Messer presented those in attendance, including his friend the minister, with the arguments of the entrepreneurs. Olmert instructed the ministry officials to expedite the handling of the case, and at a later date declared in the Knesset that he was "fighting" to set up the factory.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade under Olmert undertook to pay for 75 percent of the costs of developing the land for the building of the factory. At that time Messer worked on a volunteer basis in managing Olmert's campaign organization, which backed his candidacy in the Jerusalem mayoral election in 1998, and which had still not been dissolved.

2. Another client of attorney Messer was Shemen Industries, which opposed reducing tariffs on cooking imported oils. After the Ministry of Industry and Trade announced a 3-4.5 percent drop in the tariffs, on the basis of recommendations made by ministry experts, a special meeting was held in Olmert's office later that month. Messer attended the meeting as the representative of the oil producer. As a result of that meeting, Olmert overturned the original decision and ordered the imposition of a 4 percent tariff on imported oil. Boaz Tzafrir, at the time CEO of Shemen said: "Olmert took matters into his own hands... and we succeeded in keeping the situation more or less unchanged."

3. The technology firm Asicom paid attorney Messer an advance of NIS 80,000 to bypass the decision of Shmuel Mordechai, who at the time served as director of the Investment Center at the Ministry of Industry and Trade. A senior Asicom executive said: "During the meeting we pointed out that Shmuel Mordechai did not like the approval we received... and did everything in his power to nullify it. Messer said that 'he will get his from above.' How many people are there who are above the director of the Investment Center?" The same executive noted that ultimately the company managed to solve its problems on its own, and Messer did not receive any more money.

In response Messer said that "this never happened. The managers of Asicom and I have a financial dispute, and their claims are biased and baseless."

In all the cases mentioned in the Haaretz investigation report, a bonus was promised to attorney Messer should his lobbying activities at the Ministry of Industry and Trade prove successful. In all instances, Olmert did not inform the State Comptroller's Office or the attorney general of a possible conflict of interest, as is required by the regulations of the committee for the prevention of conflicts of interest for ministers and deputy ministers. Furthermore, in none of the cases did Olmert opt to disqualify himself because of conflict of interest.

In response Messer said: "I do not recall that I asked any of the people in Olmert's office to further projects related to me."

A statement issued by Olmert's office notes that "members of the Prime Minister's Office never handled nor intervened in cases represented by Messer. We are not aware of any matter that Messer promoted at the Ministry of Industry and Trade."