Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is discussing the candidacy of a close associate and personal assistant as the deputy attorney general for public administrative law – a role that is responsible for handling conflicts of interest in the civil service.
Mendelblit and Gil Limon have been friends for over a decade, and Limon’s present job is a position of trust. Mendelblit heads the committee that selects someone to fill the position.
By law and government decision, the positions of deputies to the attorney general are chosen by a search committee headed by the attorney general, and whose members include Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkovitz, Justice Ministry director general Eran Davidi, academia representative Prof. Ruth Kanai and attorney Gali Miara.
The committee must recommend a candidate for deputy attorney general for public administrative law to Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who will bring the recommendation for government approval. Until recently Dina Zilber filled the position, and among her predecessors were Mishael Cheshin and Meni Mazuz, who later became Supreme Court justices.
Dozens of people have submitted their candidacy and the next stage is the interviews. At a meeting of the committee, it discussed whether Mendelblit is permitted to discuss Limon’s candidacy, because the two have worked together closely for many years.
Mendelblit and Limon met when serving in the military, and later Limon helped Mendelblit when he was appointed cabinet secretary and attorney general. Someone close to both said that “friendly work relations are not unusual, but the entire Justice Ministry knows that the relationship between Limon and the attorney general is much more than that.”
Mendelblit told the committee members that it was not the first time that an attorney general discussed the promotion of one of his aides under such circumstances. For example, previous attorney general Yehuda Weinstein appointed his aide Raz Nizri deputy attorney general for criminal cases. A senior Justice Ministry official said, “That’s absurd. Weinstein liked Nizri, but they were acquainted in the Justice Ministry for a few years. It’s not like the long-term friendship of the attorney general and Limon. They know everything about each other.” The committee members didn’t object to having Mendelblit continue to head the committee and advanced Limon to the next stage. Limon, who has a doctorate in law, was promoted to the next stage with another 10 candidates.
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The attorney general, whose term will be over at the end of the year, declared in a conflict of interest agreement that he signed upon his appointment that “in a matter directly related to another person who has a personal connection that is likely to place me in a situation of a suspicion of conflict of interest, I will consult with the legal adviser to the Justice Ministry, Leah Rakover, and act in coordination with her.”
However, he didn’t present the committee with Rakover’s opinion permitting him to discuss Limon’s appointment, and committee members claimed that they didn’t know about Mendlblit’s earlier declaration on the matter. Mendelblit refused to say whether he had asked for advice as he promised.
Mendelblit also acted contrary to his office’s direction on “making arrangements to prevent conflict of interest in the civil service,” according to which it is forbidden to make a decision if there is a suspicion of a conflict of interest and even “a possibility of favoritism.” According to another opinion, that of the Committee for the Prevention of Conflict of Interests in Local Authorities, even if someone acted properly when using his authority to promote a person close to him, “there will still be no way to avoid determining that he acted under suspicion of conflict of interest, only because he had the opportunity to abuse his position.”
In accordance with the conflict of interest rules, Mendelblit disqualified himself from several discussions – for example in the Effi Naveh case – because he and Naveh knew each other due to work relations between the attorney general and the chairman of the Israel Bar Association. But whereas Naveh and Mendelblit were close for only a few years, Mendelblit has been close to Limon for much longer.
A leading legal expert on issues of conflict of interest told Haaretz that “in the event that there is nobody to fill the function of the office holder who is suspected of conflict of interest, a decision must be made despite the suspicion of conflict of interest. But he added: “In this case the government’s decision is that the attorney general will head the search committee, but even in cases where the law grants the attorney general authority he can delegate it to subordinates. Between the attorney general and the other deputies there is the position of senior deputy, now filled by Raz Nizri. In order to prevent gossip and a claim of favoritism, the attorney general should appoint Nizri to replace him as chairman of the search committee.”
The attorney general’s office replied that “there is no conflict of interest for personal reasons between the attorney general and his leading aide, and the facts brought here are not accurate. Their relationship is a long-term professional relationship.
The search committee, which is composed of five senior members, will formulate its recommendations in a practical and professional manner as is customary. Under these circumstances there is no reason why the attorney general shouldn’t be a member of the search committee for examining the deputy attorney general, as has frequently been done in similar cases.”