Ten months have elapsed since the permits committee at the State Comptroller’s Office ordered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reimburse Michigan businessman Spencer Partrich for the value of suits and cigars he received from Partrich. But so far the prime minister has failed to do so and is reportedly refusing to cooperate on the matter.
Shlomit Barnea Farago, the legal adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, whom the committee entrusted with dealing with the issue, has informed the committee that she has failed to resolve the matter and that the prime minister is ignoring her requests on the issue. According to correspondence with a lawyer for Netanyahu, the prime minister received cigars alone valued at 25,000 shekels ($7,700).
In July 2020, the permits committee ruled that Netanyahu had to reimburse Partrich for the value of suits and cigars he had received from the businessman. At the time, however, the committee did not know the value of the goods. It therefore ruled that the comptroller in the Prime Minister’s Office, Itzik Davidian, would conduct an appraisal. It made Barnea Farago, the legal adviser in the office, responsible for arranging and coming up with a timeline by which the prime minister would make the reimbursement.
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Barnea Farago repeatedly contacted Yossi Cohen, one of the prime minister’s lawyers, to start the process and obtain information on the number of suits and cigars that Partrich gave the prime minister. But she has since informed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that her efforts, which included a meeting on the issue, have failed and that the prime minister is refusing to cooperate.
After eight months during which the accountant and the legal adviser at the Prime Minister’s Office tried to obtain the prime minister’s cooperation, they decided to give up. On February 15 Barnea-Farago sent a blunt letter to the attorney general and the permits committee, in which she wrote: “We did our utmost and more to carry out the decisions of the permits committee, but our many requests remained unanswered, and despite the agreement at the meeting regarding receipt of details and a reference to the suits and the cigars, and the extensions that were given for receiving a reply, we were not given any written reference. We are therefore forced to inform the respected permits committee that we are unable to carry out its order.”
Two days later Cohen responded on behalf of the prime minister and wrote that they are cooperating, and they wish to declare that Netanyahu received two suits from Partrich and they were returned to him in November 2019. In this response there was no evidence presented that the suits were in fact returned. Concerning the cigars, Cohen declared that he would reply later on.
An unpleasant email correspondence began between him and Barnea-Farago, during which the attorney complained of failing to receive a reply. The correspondence was also sent to members of the permits committee and to Mendelblit.
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A week later Cohen declared that according to his calculations, Netanyahu received cigars from Partrich worth 25,000 shekels – information that was revealed to the authorities for the first time. Cohen added that the prime minister had not yet decided whether he intended to return the sum to Partrich or to donate it to charity, but that in any case he intended to disburse this sum. If a decision is made, wrote Cohen, he will inform the Prime Minister Office’s legal adviser and the permits committee. To date Cohen has not provided proof that the suits and the money were returned to Partrich, and has not said whether Netanyahu intends to return the money or to donate it.
Mendelblit’s office, which was constantly kept informed of events, had questions about the reliability of Cohen’s declaration on behalf of the prime minister. According to Cohen, the suits were returned in November 2019, but discussions of the suits in the permits committee took place later, along with the final decision regarding them in July 2020. The attorney general’s office wondered why he didn’t inform the permits committee already then that the suits had been returned, and remove the subject from the agenda.
In response to a request by Haaretz, the Prime Minister Office’s legal adviser and accountant replied that they confirm the details and that they don’t intend to deal with the matter any longer – “in light of the above-mentioned declaration by the legal adviser and the accountant to the State Comptroller’s Office they did not continue to handle the issue,” they said.
When asked who is now handling the issue, the permits committee replied, “By decision of the permits committee on February 20, 2019, it was ruled that the handling of the return of the suits and the cigars given to the prime minister without legal permission, would be imposed on the Prime Minister Office’s legal adviser and accountant. To the extent that the Prime Minister Office’s legal adviser believes that there is a problem with carrying out the decision imposed on her, she can turn to the attorney general, who is her superior, in order to receive instructions on the matter.”
On behalf of the prime minister, Cohen said, “The handling of the completion of the agreements will be concluded soon.”
This week Netanyahu responded to a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, regarding a different demand by the permits committee – to the effect that he must return $300,000 that he received to pay for his defense, from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky. At first the committee ruled that he only had to return part of the sum, $30,000. But in January, as a result of the petition, the attorney general changed his mind and ruled that the entire $300,000 is an illegal gift that must be returned.
In the context of his response on Monday, Netanyahu attacked the attorney general for changing his mind, and wrote that he “exploited the platform to change his version entirely, and at the same time even committed inaccuracies that raise doubt as to his good faith and his motives.”