Bracing for Charges, Olmert Calls State Witness in Holyland Case 'Abominable Liar'

Former prime minister lashes out at police over investigation of bribe-taking

"The state witness in the Holyland case is an abominable liar, but instead of putting him in jail, you're paying him and bribing him," former prime minister Ehud Olmert accused police investigators during one of his many interrogations on the case. "The only one paying bribes in this project is the State of Israel."

Olmert's venom was directed at this witness for a reason. Yesterday, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador approved the police's recommendation that Olmert be charged with taking bribes from businessmen Avigdor Kelner and Hillel Charney in exchange for his help in advancing their various real estate ventures, including the Holyland luxury apartment complex in Jerusalem. But the heart of the state's case is the testimony of the middleman who actually transferred the alleged payments - a businessman in his 70s who later turned state's evidence.

The witness, whose name is still under a gag order, told the police that he met Olmert in 1994, when he began promoting the Holyland project. Olmert was then the mayor of Jerusalem; the witness was working as an advisor to the project's developers.

The witness said Olmert helped the project in various ways: by personally appearing before various municipal licensing committees and expressing support for it, by chairing a city council meeting that blocked the submission of hundreds of objections to the project, by signing off on plans that increased the developers' profits, and by intervening in a city tax assessment so as to reduce their municipal taxes.

Olmert has consistently denied inappropriately intervening in the project, though he makes no bones about having supported it. Various municipal officials told the police that his involvement on the project's behalf was exceptional.

The state's witness told the police that in exchange for Olmert's help, he made illegal donations to Olmert's various political campaigns, at the request of Olmert and his then-bureau chief, Shula Zaken. For instance, during Olmert's mayoral reelection campaign in 1998, he was asked to split a NIS 60,000 donation among 12 people, including various relatives, to circumvent the legal limits on individual donations. On another occasion, he said, he gave Zaken NIS 70,000 in cash and told her to find front men to donate it.

He also told the police he helped cover some of Olmert's campaign debts, and that Olmert personally thanked him for his help several times.

Olmert, who has frequently termed the witness a "pathological liar" in conversations with his cronies, denies these allegations vehemently. But Zaken has confirmed that the witness made cash donations to Olmert's campaigns, and told the police she assumed that Olmert knew about them.

The witness also claimed to have given Zaken cash and checks that were intended for Olmert's personal use - another allegation Olmert denies. But police have discovered that a large number of checks drawn on the witness' account were deposited into the accounts of Zaken and various of her relatives. The witness said these checks were meant to get Olmert to promote the real estate interests of the Hazera corporation, of which Kelner is a part-owner.

The checks deposited in Zaken family accounts included two checks for NIS 10,000 each in January 2003 - one on January 5 and the other 11 days later. The following year, the donations accelerated: Between April 25 and July 15, 2004, five checks for NIS 20,000 each were deposited in these accounts.

The witness also gave the police copies of letters he sent Zaken, like one dated September 2002 that read: "I hereby transfer $10,000 at your request. Warm regards to Olmert. Kisses."

Olmert says he had no idea the witness was giving money to Zaken.

The witness also claimed to have transferred hundreds of thousands of shekels to Olmert's brother Yossi, who left the country in 2004 due to financial difficulties. In addition, he told the police, Olmert asked him to help Uri Sheetrit, then Jerusalem's municipal engineer, out of his financial difficulties, in exchange for which Sheetrit would use his position to advance the Holyland project. Olmert denies these allegations as well.

In addition to cash, the witness said he gave Olmert a luxury pen costing thousands of shekels and expensive cigars. Olmert denies this, too. According to sources involved in the investigation, he told police that he had very little to do with the witness, and at most received flowers or chocolates from him.

But when police searched the computers of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry - where Olmert served as minister after completing his two terms as mayor - the witness' name came up repeatedly, both as having been scheduled for meetings with Olmert and Zaken, and as having been slated to finance a poll for Olmert. For instance, an e-mail sent to Zaken by one of Olmert's senior advisors reminded her to talk with the witness about the survey. Olmert said he knew nothing about the poll.

Entries in Zaken's datebook also indicate that she was helping to promote the witness' business affairs: In one entry, for instance, his name appears alongside an entry for a meeting with the Israel Lands Administration's then-director, Yaakov Efrati, and Hazera executives. The ILA was subordinate to the Industry Ministry at that time.

The witness also said that in exchange for their help in advancing another construction project, at the Ayalon Park, he promised Olmert and Zaken half his profits. The project was ultimately thwarted by then-MK Omri Sharon, son of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Olmert denies having been promised any money from the venture, but acknowledged that he supported the construction project, saying he thought it would help finance the costs of creating the park.

During his interrogations, Olmert lashed out at the police repeatedly. At one point, for instance, he accused them of having driven attorney Uri Messer, his good friend, to attempt suicide. He also accused them repeatedly of leaking information to the press.