Court Reinstates Tiberias Comptroller, Slams Mayor for Eavesdropping on Official

The comptroller of the Tiberias municipality was cleared of all criminal charges against him Sunday following allegations that he had misreported the hours that he worked and improperly disclosed information to the press. The defendant, Benny Eliahu, who had earlier been convicted by a lower court, was also advised by the Central District Court in Petah Tikva that he could immediately return to his job with the Tiberias municipality.

In her judgment on the appeal of the conviction, Judge Noga Ohad also leveled criticism at the Tiberias municipality and mayor Zohar Oved, whom she said had gone after Eliahu in an effort to thwart his work as municipal comptroller.

Eliahu was ordered permanently removed from his job with the municipality by a disciplinary court a year ago, after being convicted of reporting on two occasions that he was at work when he was absent - which Eliahu, who had been in his position for 14 years, denied. He was also convicted of improperly passing on information to a journalist. On appeal of the conviction, Eliahu received the support of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss as a whistleblower exposing public corruption.

The charges against Eliahu had their origins in a investigation that the municipality undertook in which they hired a private investigator who gained access to the city comptroller's computer on the pretext of checking computer security. The judge said the operation was a violation of Eliahu's privacy and involved improper eavesdropping.

"Copying [Eliahu's] personal e-mails constitutes an invasion of his privacy and is comparable to rifling through someone's intimate personal effects or going through his office drawer where he keeps his personal effects," the judge wrote in her decision.

She also stated that facts in the case "raise a heavy suspicion with respect to the motives of the mayor" when he decided undertake the investigation against Eliahu.

The Movement for Quality Government intervened in the appeal of Eliahu's conviction on the contention that the appeal dealt with "substantial matters affecting proper administration, the subject of maintaining the independence of the work of comptrollers at local authorities as far as it relates to their ability to gather information and evidence, and to maintain the confidentiality of their sources from outsiders."

In the course of the case, the Tiberias municipality argued that the e-mail access that the city provided to Eliahu was not his personal property, and that "any reasonable employee knows that information in his personal e-mail is not personal [in the sense that] it is accessible by other parties in the municipality."

Judge Ohad called it unreasonable that information in the comptroller's possession would be accessible by the parties he is overseeing, and is contrary to the rationale of having such oversight. "The disciplinary court did not provide its opinion regarding the harm to the public interest when it permitted access to information in the comptroller's possession, and it should have considered this as part of the range of its considerations. [Eliahu] had an expectation of complete privacy by virtue of his position as internal comptroller who preserves the confidentiality of the information that he receives - out of concern for his sources, and the need for effective investigation and certainly [to guard it] from access by the mayor in particular," the judge wrote.

The judge said the conduct of the municipality left a lot to be desired, and awarded Eliahu legal expenses, even though he had not asked for them.