In Trial, Former PM Olmert Rejects Secretaries' Claims of Eavesdropping

Olmert has been indicted for bribery, fraud, breach of trust and income tax evasion.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert took the witness stand in his graft trial in Jerusalem District Court Monday, refuting testimony from former employees who said they were ordered by his former office manager to listen in on Olmert's phone conversations with associates.

Two women who worked as secretaries under Olmert when he was industry and trade minister testified in court Monday that they were instructed by their boss's chief of staff, Shula Zaken, to eavesdrop on Olmert's telephone conversations.

Olmert is being tried on charges stemming from three different cases of alleged corruption - the Investment Center affair, the Talansky case and allegations surrounding Rishon Tours. He has been indicted for bribery, fraud, breach of trust and income tax evasion.

In the Investment Center affair, Olmert is suspected of favoring, as minister of trade, firms that hired his friend, attorney Uri Messer. According to the indictment, Olmert acted in favor of Shemen, an oil importing firm, which sought assistance on removing tariffs.

In another instance, Bezeq allegedly used Messer's services to set up a meeting between the company's CEO and Olmert, without the participation of other ministry officials. The timing was crucial, as Olmert was due to rule on a financial dispute between Bezeq and Yes.

The prosecution is also accusing Olmert of fraud and breach of trust for not recusing himself in matters involving Messer. Olmert's defense will be based on the argument that all of his decisions were legitimate, logical and did not always favor Messer's position.

In what is called the "money envelopes" affair, Olmert is accused of illegally receiving tens of thousands of dollars from U.S. businessman Morris (Moshe) Talansky. Olmert is expected to argue that the money was used for campaign finance over the years, and that the funds were legal contributions.

Zaken, a co-defendant in the case, is alleged to have documented meetings and money transfers approved by Olmert during his tenure as industry and trade minister.

"We would listen to [Olmert's] conversations whenever Shula asked us to," one of the former secretaries, Vered Ovadia, said in response to questions from Jerusalem District Prosecutor Eli Abarbanel. "We would transfer the call to Ehud, and during the conversation, I would sit like a parrot and I wouldn't even know who was on the other line."

The secretaries testified that Zaken would signal for them to eavesdrop on phone calls by touching her own ear or marking down the instruction in her diary.

The other witness, Keren Cohen, testified that she eavesdropped on phone calls between Olmert and Ronit Kan, head of the Israel Antitrust Authority; Oved Yehezkel, Olmert's former chief of staff; and Ra'anan Dinur, who had served as director of the Prime Minister's Office.

The former secretaries told the court they did not think Olmert knew of the eavesdropping. "It looked as if it were a secret thing," Ovadia said. "She wouldn't shout an instruction to us. She would just tell us. We thought he didn't know."

Under cross-examination from Zaken's attorney, however, Ovadia and Cohen admitted that Zaken never ordered them to keep the eavesdropping secret.

"Obviously, this was routine work procedure for the ministry that was also used in other ministries," attorney Micah Fettman said. "There's no eavesdropping here."

Olmert's attorney, Navot Tel-Zur, launched a lengthy, blistering cross-examination of the former secretaries, focusing specifically on the so-called "Shula diaries." Prosecutors say Zaken recorded details of Olmert's receiving cash from Talansky in her electronic journal.

The defense argues that the diaries were accessible to many employees in the ministry who could edit its contents as they saw fit. Therefore, the lawyers argue, it is inadmissible as evidence.

Olmert contradicted the former secretaries' testimony. "Everybody heard and everybody saw," the former prime minister testified. "What exactly could Shula Zaken signal? This witness is not a Harvard graduate. She's a low-level worker in the ministry."