Ex-minister Tzachi Hanegbi Cleared of Cronyism, Convicted of Perjury

MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima ) was convicted of perjury and swearing falsely yesterday, but acquitted of the main charge on which he was tried - that of fraud and breach of trust for having made numerous political appointments while serving as environment minister from 2001 to 2003.

In its 2-1 verdict, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court also acquitted Hanegbi of election bribery and of trying to improperly influence voters.

The Kadima MK's right-hand man, former ministry director general Shmuel Hershkowitz, was also acquitted by the court of fraud and breach and trust for his role in Hanegbi's political appointments.

The indictment, the first time a politician had ever been put on trial for making political appointments, accused Hanegbi of appointing some 50 Likud Central Committee members or their relatives during his two years as minister. At the time, Hanegbi was a member of the Likud party. The indictment was based in part on an advertisement that appeared during the 2003 Likud primary, which boasted of Hanegbi's political appointments and urged central committee members to reelect him so that he could continue the good work.

Judges Aryeh Romanoff and Oded Shaham, with Judge Yoel Tsur dissenting, agreed with the prosecution both that political appointments could be a crime in principle, and that Hanegbi's appointments were sufficiently egregious to make them a crime in practice.

But Romanoff joined with Tsur to acquit Hanegbi (as well as Hershkowitz ), on the grounds that he was the first person ever to be tried for what was then a very common practice. As a result, Romanoff said, Hanegbi had no way of realizing that he risked punishment for his behavior, and his conviction would thus violate the principles of justice.

Tsur, in contrast, argued that at the time Hanegbi made his appointments - which was before October 2004, when then-attorney general Menachem Mazuz issued a directive prohibiting such appointments - political appointments were in fact not a crime. They were "widespread in the civil service," Tsur wrote, and "the law enforcement agencies, including ministry legal advisors, state comptrollers and civil service commissioners" knew it, yet did nothing, thus giving a tacit seal of approval.

Romanoff also sided with Tsur, with Shaham again dissenting, to acquit Hanegbi of election bribery and seeking to influence voters.

But Romanoff sided with Shaham to convict Hanegbi of perjury and swearing falsely, with Tsur dissenting. The majority judges found that the affidavit Hanegbi submitted to the Central Elections Committee about the ad, as well as his oral testimony before it, were sufficiently false to justify conviction.

Tsur, in contrast, said the prosecution failed to prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

After the verdict, which ran to over 1,000 pages, was read out, Hanegbi convened a press conference at the Knesset. He said he felt great relief at the judges' decision, but voiced no criticism of the police or the prosecution. He noted that he has served as both justice minister and public security minister, in which capacities he learned that "both are honest, professional agencies that feel a sense of mission."

He was always convinced that "in the end, justice would prevail," Hanegbi added, so "I knew this battle had to be waged in the courtroom - not in the media or in the streets."

He said he did not want to appeal the verdict, but was still consulting with his lawyer.

He denied any intention of running for Kadima's leadership in its next primary.