Netanyahu Ordered to Pay Back $300,000 to His Cousin in Unauthorized Legal Funds

Money from prime minister's cousin to cover legal expenses had been received without approval from state comptroller committee

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 3, 2019.
Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to receive funds from a wealthy cousin to cover his legal fees was denied for a second time on Sunday. The rejection came from a panel in the State Comptroller’s Office that examines possible conflicts of interest for ministers.

The panel ruled that Netanyahu must pay back $300,000 he had already accepted from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky without the committee’s approval. He was also told to return the suits, or their cash value, that American businessman Spencer Partrich had bought him. 

Netanyahu’s attorney, Navot Tel Tzur, said he would petition the High Court of Justice to reverse the committee’s decision, which he called “a scandalous decision that denies the prime minister the basic right to legal defense.” 

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The panel sharply criticized Netanyahu’s requests for at least $2 million from Milikowsky and Partrich, who were witnesses in the cigar-and-champagne case against the prime minister (Case 1000), saying he should use his own money and resources to finance his defense “before turning to people of wealth for donations.” The panel noted that the prime minister is an affluent man, “Therefore, he must prove that he had exhausted his ability to bear the costs himself before seeking donations.”

According to the Forbes Israel rankings published Sunday, Netanyahu’s wealth is an estimated 50 million shekels ($13.8 million).

As for the funds he had already taken from Milikowsky – which the prime minster reported only during his second request to accept funding – the panel said, “The attempt to get retroactive approval is not justified under the circumstances and is not proper from a public perspective.”

The prime minister’s legal team had asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to allow him to solicit contributions for his legal defense from Milikowsky and Partrich. Mendelblit at the time told Netanyahu that he didn’t think there was a problem with raising such funds, but it would need the approval of the permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office. 

But although he had received Milikowsky’s funds between March 2017 and March 2018, when he asked for permission to accept the funds the first time he didn’t mention that he had already taken $300,000 from his cousin. 

The panel rejected the request in December, saying it would be improper for “people of wealth to cover legal fees stemming from a criminal investigation including the suspicion of criminal activities involving people of wealth.” It added that “funding like this can hurt the public’s faith in the integrity of government officials.”

The permits committee, composed of former judge Awni Habash and attorneys Avigdor Ravid and Nurit Yisraeli, rejected the claim by Netanyahu’s lawyers in his second request that he had not reported the funds received in good faith and due to legal advice he had gotten. 

“It’s hard to conceive that one could receive funds totaling more than a million shekels without going through steps and procedures,” the panel wrote, adding, “The prime minister is not a novice, nor are his legal advisers novices or simpletons.” 

They added that the prime minister had previously asked the committee eight different times for permission to raise money, including from Milikowsky, to cover debts, so he was well aware of the obligation to get permission to accept money, including from relatives. 

The committee was not swayed by Netanyahu’s attorneys’ argument that the money received from Milikowsky had already been paid to several lawyers representing Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Nor could the panel understand why Netanyahu would have to accept suits from anyone instead of buying them himself, and ruled that he must return the suits, or their value, to Partrich.

The primary justification that Netanyahu’s lawyers offered for the request to raise money related to the scope of the cases against Netanyahu, which they termed “dinosaur cases,” and the resources already devoted to them. 

“The incredible outlays that the state made in the investigations into the prime minister illustrate the endless budget and resources it has at its disposal, and this highlights the helplessness of the individual, no matter how much wealth he has, to defend himself alone against the whole critical mass aligned against him.”

To this the panel responded, “There is never symmetry between the suspect or the defendant and the state authorities. This lack of symmetry is justified, since the state authorities act in the interest of the public as a whole. ... So it is regarding a simple matter and an ‘ordinary’ suspect or defendant, and so it is in complex cases and a suspect or defendant who is a minister or an MK.

A ‘regular’ person who does not have the means to finance his defense is entitled to assistance from the Public Defender’s Office, while an elected official or public servant may be assisted by the committee for legal defense and coverage of legal expenses for officeholders and civil servants. This argument cannot be accepted as a justification for raising funds.”

The committee also noted that the premier did not submit information it had asked for about the nature of the connection between himself and Milikowsky and Partrich, and how often they would meet. 

They noted that while Netanyahu said that he’d known Partrich for 19 years, since his first term as prime minister, “Even if a friendship developed later on, the relationship between the two was forged as a relationship between a person of wealth and a senior politician, with all that implies. This isn’t a friendship from long ago, from school, youth group or military service, but a friendship that developed out of a relationship between a wealthy man and a government official. The assumption is that this friendship emerged from mutual interests.”

As for Milikowsky, the panel said that in addition to being a relative, Netanyahu had business interests with him in a steel additives company (See Page 7). Netanyahu said he’d sold his shares in that company a decade ago when he was reelected prime minister.

Netanyahu’s attorney, Tel Zur, also protested that the panel did not see fit to meet with him before making its decision on the second request.