Is It Possible Ehud Olmert Did Not Know About $125K Transfer to His Brother?

The Supreme Court's five justices reduced charges and punishment meted out to former PM in the Holyland case, but were at odds over nuances of Olmert brothers' relations with each other and state's witness.

Ehud Olmert at Israel's Supreme Court, December 29, 2015.
Emil Salman

The Supreme Court acquitted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday of the main indictment against him – for receiving bribes in the Holyland corruption affair – which involved the transfer of 500,000 shekels (about $125,000) from state’s witness Shmuel Dechner to the premier's brother, Yossi Olmert.

Dechner passed away in 2013, in the middle of legal proceedings in the case, involving bribery of municipal and other officials during development of a luxury residential project in Jerusalem.

However, it turns out that a dispute exists among the justices as to whether Olmert actually knew about the transfer of money from Dechner to his brother. As Justice Neal Hendel wrote: “If he knew – he committed a crime. If he didn’t know – he didn’t commit a crime.”

The head of the five-man panel, Justice Salim Joubran, believed that the original conviction by the Tel Aviv District Court in this matter should stand, since, he said, Olmert knew about the money transfer. But the other members of the panel, Justices Isaac Amit, Zvi Zylbertal, Uzi Vogelman and Hendel, felt that there was place to acquit the former prime minister.

Expressing the majority opinion, Hendel said it would be impossible to prove that Olmert did in fact know about the money transfer, because alternative scenarios had not been ruled out fully.

“The possibility that Yossi wouldn’t tell [Ehud] Olmert about the money he received from Dechner is reasonable, logical and supported by the evidence,” Hendel stated, adding that “the relationship between the brothers indicates that Yossi did not keep Olmert informed about what was going on in his life, and in particular tried to conceal from his close family – including Olmert – the major financial abyss he had descended into.”

For his part, Amit had reservations and explained that, “My initial intuition naturally tends to the conclusion that it isn’t reasonable that Olmert didn’t know that Dechner ‘cast his bread upon the waters’ by transferring money to his brother Yossi. Because if not, why did Dechner pay Yossi in the first place?”

But Amit also felt he had to warn about the dangers of intuition in this case, and observed that there was room for acquittal because Olmert was unaware that Dechner was giving money to others convicted in the affair involving the luxurious Holyland residential project in Jerusalem. The others included the ex-premier's bureau chief Shula Zaken and city Uri Sheetrit. Amit added that the possibility that Dechner thought Yossi Olmert would inform his brother of the transaction may be reasonable, but that did not rule out a scenario in which other variables – such as the relations between the brothers, which were unknown to Dechner – caused Yossi Olmert not to mention the transfer.

Vogelman agreed with the view that Olmert should be acquitted on this particular count of the indictment because it was not sufficiently proven that he actually knew everything that was going on. The justice added, moreover, that the facts are known only to Ehud Olmert, his brother Yossi and the late state’s witness: Yossi denied that his brother knew about the transfer, Olmert himself also denied it, and in the absence of a proper cross-examination, due to his demise, the account by Dechner cannot be relied on.

“We are left with circumstantial evidence, which is not weighty enough for conviction,” declared Vogelman, who added that, “the doubt that remains – to the effect that Dechner may have transferred the money to Yossi on his own cognizance, intending to inform his brother about it at the right time later on, although that day never came and Dechner missed the opportunity ‘to cut the coupon’ on his investment in Yossi – cannot be ignored.”

Zylbertal concurred with these views, but Joubran backed the district court ruling after reviewing four scenarios to determine whether Olmert’s awareness of the transaction could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Joubran said that it’s impossible that Yossi Olmert’s acquaintance, Avraham Natan, asked Dechner for the money, and it’s also impossible that Yossi asked for it himself. The justice explained that there was no previous acquaintance between Yossi and Dechner, so “it’s impossible that Yossi approached the state’s witness on his own initiative, without knowing him, and asked him for financial assistance, without informing [Ehud] Olmert before or at that time, or at least after the fact.”

Joubran added that it is also impossible that the state’s witness wired money to Yossi without informing his brother Olmert about it, at some point.

Therefore, the justice determined that the fourth scenario – in which it was Olmert who turned to Dechner and asked him to send money to his brother – is strongly supported by the evidentiary material. Furthermore, Olmert did not present evidence that would allow a determination that a reasonable doubt exists. Joubran said that his view was based on knowledge of the relations between Olmert and the state’s witness; the testimony of American businessman Morris Talansky in the Holyland case, which indicates that Olmert worked to repay Yossi’s debts with the help of wealthy people; and on the testimony of Shula Zaken to the police regarding the possibility Olmert asked Dechner to transfer the money to his brother.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen ruled in March 2014 regarding this aspect of the indictment that, “Olmert’s line of defense is not logical.” He said that “the state’s witness, like Talansky, was an experienced and sophisticated businessmen. Like businessmen, these people ‘buy and sell,’ and the state’s witness bought Olmert’s services at the price of transferring 500,000 shekels to his brother.’”

Rozen also wrote in the ruling, some of which was overturned Tuesday, that “Olmert always used the same presentation [of events]. His presentation in the affair of the state’s witness is similar to that in the affair of the deposit of money by Morris Talansky. Olmert, in both instances, is ‘someone who doesn’t hear and doesn’t know.’”