Amid Corruption Cases, Netanyahu Tried to Fire His Bureau's Legal Adviser

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File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019.
File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019.Credit: Ariel Schalit/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently tried to oust his bureau's legal adviser, who is considered a key witness in several criminal cases against the prime minister and his associates.

Netanyahu sought permission from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, to whom all ministerial legal advisers report, to fire Shlomit Barnea Farago. In his request, the prime minister argued that his relationship with Barnea Farago has broken down completely, making it impossible to work together, his associates said.

Nevertheless, Mendelblit replied that Netanyahu couldn’t fire her.

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Barnea Farago has been the legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office since long before Netanyahu returned to power in 2009. Over the past few years, she has given statements to the police in several criminal cases involving Netanyahu.

One of these cases involves financial improprieties at the prime minister’s residences. Ultimately, Netanyahu's wife, Sara, was charged with ordering catered meals at a cost of hundreds of thousands of shekels in taxpayers' money.

By virtue of her position, Barnea Farago sits on a three-member committee that must approve expenditures by the prime minister’s residences. In her testimony about the alleged financial irregularities there, as reported by journalist Guy Peleg, she said the Netanyahu family “very frequently sent in requests for significant amounts.”

File photo: Legal adviser to Prime Minister's Office Shlomit Barnea Farago attends weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 8, 2018.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Moreover, she said, “the scope of these requests, the degree of urgency, the substance of the requests and their character” were “incomparably” greater than they had been under Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and the Netanyahus were hostile when she had to reject their requests.

Barnea Farago was also a key witness in the so-called submarines case, in which police have recommended charging Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, David Shimron, along with several other people. Police say Shimron worked to persuade the government to purchase submarines from the German company ThyssenKrupp on behalf of its Israeli representative, Michael Ganor, but failed to report this to Barnea Farago, as he was legally required to do under the conflict of interest agreement signed by his law firm.

Police say that agreement required him to inform Barnea Farago of any dealings he had with government officials on behalf of clients other than Netanyahu, so she could make sure there was no conflict of interests. Shimron denies that he was under any such obligation.

In the Bezeq-Walla case, police have recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery for allegedly conferring regulatory benefits on the Bezeq telecommunications firm in exchange for favorable coverage by its internet news site, Walla.

An official involved in investigating this case said Barnea Farago had told the police about a conversation she had with Netanyahu over a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that records of Netanyahu’s phone calls with Bezeq’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, be made public. The petition was filed after Haaretz first reported on Netanyahu’s quid-quo-pro relationship with Elovitch.

The state’s response to this petition was that Netanyahu’s phone calls with Elovitch stemmed solely from “the many years of friendship between them and their wives,” so the records shouldn’t be made public. Barnea Farago confirmed to the police that this response was dictated by Netanyahu.

She was also involved in a case against Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, who eventually turned state's witness against the prime minister. When he was appointed chief of staff, Harow promised to sell his consulting company, and later showed Barnea Farago an agreement to sell it for $3 million. But the payments he received didn’t match this agreement, leading her to suspect the sale was fictitious. She therefore informed the Justice Ministry, which ordered Harow be investigated for fraud.

During their investigation of Harow, police discovered a recording of discussions between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, in which the two discussed a deal – ultimately never consummated – under which Mozes would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in his daily if the prime minister took steps to undermine the paper’s main rival, Israel Hayom. Police have recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery in this case.

Recently, Barnea Farago handled Netanyahu’s request to let two American businessmen, Nathan Milikowsky and Spencer Partrich, fund his legal expenses in the cases against him. Both men gave statements to the police in the third case in which police have recommended indicting Netanyahu, which involves illicit gifts from other businessmen.

Barnea Farago backed Netanyahu’s position on the funding issue. She told the Knesset State Control Committee that it wouldn’t violate the Gifts Law, which normally bars government officials from accepting gifts from businessmen, if Milikowsky and Partrich financed his legal expenses, because Milikowsky is Netanyahu’s cousin and Partrich has been his friend for 17 years.

But as she noted at the time, the final decision rests with the State Comptroller’s Office, which ultimately decided not to let him to accept the money. The office’s permits committee said it was inappropriate for tycoons to fund the prime minister’s legal expenses in cases stemming from his allegedly criminal relationships with other tycoons.

Netanyahu has asked the committee to reconsider, but meanwhile, it turns out he has already received $300,000 from Milikowksy, without waiting for permission. The state comptroller has asked Mendelblit to investigate this.

Ministry legal advisers are chosen through the normal civil service application process; they are not personal appointees of the minister. Thus ousting one involves a lengthy, difficult process that requires very weighty reasons.

Netanyahu declined to comment on this report.

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