Court to Rule on Tzachi Hanegbi's Political Appointments Next Week

The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court is expected to announce its verdict in the case of MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima ) on Tuesday.

Hanegbi is charged with making dozens of illegal political appointments while serving as environment minister in 2001-2003, back when he was still a member of the Likud party. The prosecution views his case as the flagship of its campaign against political corruption, and the verdict will be precedent-setting, as this is Israel's first trial over political appointments.

A Likud flyer put out ahead of internal party elections in late 2002 led to the criminal investigation against Hanegbi. Its headline read: "News flash - Minister Tzachi Hanegbi holds the national record for appointing Likud members."

The flyer listed the names of 75 Likud members who were appointed to the Environment Ministry under Hanegbi. "Minister Tzachi Hanegbi personally oversees the work and ensures that our members fill all available positions," it declared.

The authors stressed that "this is a record no other minister has attained in the current government," adding that "this is only a partial list."

At the bottom of the flyer, Hanegbi's reaction appeared: "I confess to the charge." Today, Hanegbi is probably unhappy over his poor choice of words.

"Whenever I was able to find a job for our members that was suited to their skills, I asked them to apply," the flyer quoted him as saying. "It is important that party members take responsibility and be central to running the country, based of course on their suitability for the job that is offered them ... I am proud of every one of the people who were appointed, who brought us all great pride."

The announcement generated significant public criticism and sparked a report by then-state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg. It also spurred then-attorney general Menachem Mazuz to issue guidelines for ministers' involvement in appointments at their ministries. And eventually, it resulted in criminal charges against Hanegbi as well.

In September 2006, Hanegbi was indicted in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. He was charged with electoral bribery, fraud and breach of trust, attempting to influence voters, and also perjury, for having denied any involvement in the announcement during an investigation into the matter conducted by the Central Elections Committee.

When the story first broke, it attracted a great deal of attention. But subsequent corruption cases involving other Israeli politicians have kept it out of the limelight. For the past four years, the hearings have taken place in a fairly quiet courtroom presided over by Judges Yoel Tsur, Aryeh Romanoff and Oded Shaham.

The transcript of the case currently runs to some 15,000 pages, with the concluding statements by the prosecution and defense alone totaling more than 4,000 pages. Some 330 witnesses gave testimony, half before the court and the rest in statements to the police. The vast majority of witnesses were Environment Ministry employees or people who were candidates for positions at the ministry.

The state argued that as minister, Hanegbi worked systematically to appoint Likud Central Committee members and their friends and relatives to positions at the ministry, at times ignoring their qualifications and suitability for the jobs, thus undermining the general public's ability to compete for these jobs.

The indictment stated that Hanegbi "utilized public resources for the sake of political and personal interests that were contrary to the public good."

A senior legal source told Haaretz yesterday that as far as the prosecution is concerned, the crux of the case is the charge of fraud and breach of trust.

This is the first time a court has been asked to rule on a case of political appointments - an issue that is considered murky from a legal perspective.

Dr. Dalia Tzimerion, who specializes in the issue of bribery, said that if Hanegbi is convicted, it will have dramatic implications for other cases of political corruption, including an investigation into political appointments by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, which has not yet resulted in an indictment.

Hanegbi first took the stand in his defense in June 2008. He denied the charges, arguing that all appointments in his ministry were based on the applicants' professional qualifications.