"This request is crucial and dramatic" – that's how a lawyer for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Navot Tel Zur, described the detailed 25-page document that he recently sent to the office of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.
The document is a request directed to the permits committee in Shapira's office seeking to grant the prime minister permission to receive millions of dollars from two wealthy Americans to fund the prime minister's legal defense in the criminal investigations pending against him.
The committee is responsible for evaluating any action by a cabinet minister that could pose a conflict of interest and to rule on whether the action is permissible.
The two Americans, Netanyahu's cousin Nathan Milikowsky and Michigan businessman Spencer Partrich, who is a close associate of the prime minister, had previously provided police investigators with testimony in the one of three criminal investigations against the prime minister. Dubbed Case 1000, it involves allegations of lavish gifts that the prime minister and his family are said to have received from wealthy businessmen. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in that case and in the two others in which he is accused.
The committee had already turned the prime minister down on a prior request for permission to receive funding from Milikowsksy and Partrich. Tel Zur's submission to the state comptroller's office, some details of which are being published here for the first time, appears to be a final attempt to change the minds of the committee's members. The last time around, the committee ruled that it was inappropriate for the two to fund legal expenses in connection with a criminal investigation to which they were linked.
In 2017, Partrich was questioned by police about gifts he had given to the prime minister in recent years. He confirmed that he had bought the premier suits worth tens of thousands of shekels, but he said Milikowsky had reimbursed him for the expense. Milikowsky himself was summoned to provide his account in the case after Netanyahu claimed under questioning that he had bought cigars with cash that had been given to him by a relative. A statement was issued on Netanyahu’s behalf at the time saying that “the prime minister’s cousin has been assisting him for decades, and this is permissible, well-known and legal.”
For Netanyahu, the permissions committee's decision is indeed crucial. If he is turned down again, it is reasonable to assume that he would challenge the decision in the High Court of Justice, but if he loses in court, he would face either financing the major expense of his legal defense out of his own pocket or seeking representation from the Public Defender's Office.
Haaretz recently reported that Netanyahu had already raised $300,000 from Milikowsky to fund the legal defense without getting permission from the permits committee. This week, Attorney General Mendelblit announced that the prime minister will be required to reimburse the funds received from Milkowsky if the permissions committee turns Netanyahu down.
As a practical matter, Netanyahu is seeking permission to receive the funding from Milikowsky and Partrich to cover hundreds of thousands of shekels in legal fees incurred in the past and present. Netanyahu is asking permission to accept a million dollars immediately from the two and another million dollars "in a timeframe of several months." The sums would be used for Netanyahu's defense in what was described as "the present and near future" but not including proceedings in a pre-indictment hearing conducted by Mendelblit "if Heaven forbid, they are held."
Netanyahu has represented his request for permission to accept the contributions to cover legal fees as an effort to protect his basic rights in the face of actions by government authorities. "The huge costs the state invested in investigating the prime minister show the endless funds in its possession, and it serves to emphasize the financially incapability of an individual, regardless of how much money he has, to defend himself," the document states.
Mendelblit is expected to announce shortly whether he will be filing criminal charges in the three cases against Netanyahu. If he decides to indict the prime minister, it would be subject to a pre-indictment hearing in which Netanyahu would have the opportunity to show that indictments are not warranted. If he loses at that stage and faces a criminal trial, it would require the prime minister to raise additional millions of dollars for which he would need to request separate permission in the future.
The two other criminal investigations pending against the prime minister involve conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, allegedly about government regulatory concessions to the newspaper in return for favorable coverage of the prime minister. The other relates to Netanyahu’s relationship with the then-controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications and alleged favorable coverage by Bezeq’s Walla news website in exchange for government concessions.
Tel Zur's request indicates that Netanyahu already owes hundreds of thousands of shekels in legal fees, including fees owed to previous lawyers. "The prime minister has committed to pay his prior lawyers their fees, and at this stage, the prime minister has bills that he has not yet paid sitting on his desk," the request states, adding: "The prime minister has not yet paid legal fees and a reimbursement of expenses" to his new legal defense team.
At the request of the permissions committee, Tel Zur's petition includes details regarding gifts that the prime minister has received from Milikowsky and Partrich. The document states that he received cigars and two or three suits from Partrich, and that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, received "monetary assistance in the sum of about $300,000 to finance their defense costs" from Milikowsky.
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