Opinion

Oversight Begins at Home, Englman

Matanyahu Englman at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

The truth is, it was expected. It’s not for nothing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Matanyahu Englman state comptroller. It was part of his master plan to weaken democracy’s watchdogs (like the Supreme Court, attorney general, media and state comptroller) so they wouldn’t interfere with his getting immunity, passing the override clause to weaken the High Court and trying to evade the pending indictments that dangle over his head like a sword.

According to the article by Gidi Weitz on Sunday, the comptroller asked his staffers to include in their audit reports “positive remarks” about the audited agencies. That’s ridiculous. It’s exactly the opposite of his job, even if it is permitted under the State Comptroller’s Law. It’s like a journalist who would start to write laudatory articles about the regime, when his job is to be a watchdog. After all, the government, by its nature, generally publishes all kinds of praise for itself; the job of the comptroller (and the journalist) is to illuminate the dark corners and serve as a counterweight to the self-promotion.

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But even graver is the comptroller’s plan to halt the office’s activities in the realm of corruption and violations of ethics. The important unit that handles these special cases was set up by former comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and has exposed numerous acts of corruption, some of which were followed up by the prosecution and subsequently ended in criminal convictions. Englman wants to stop all this. He said outright that he doesn’t see himself as part of “law enforcement” and thus will not transfer suspicious material to the prosecution. All the corrupt operators are listening and laughing. They’ve succeeded in neutralizing the comptroller, who could have stopped them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting his ballot for state comptroller.
Olivier Fitoussi

Englman so wanted to make nice to the government that he is giving up his powers voluntarily. He wants to emasculate the permits committee, insisting that it act like a “discreet guest.” He says that he will stop delivering criticism in real time, and will suffice with retrospective comments on administrative failures, in accordance with a bill submitted by Bezalel Smotrich. Englman also plans to get the audited agencies involved in choosing the audit objectives, which will eliminate the element of surprise and allow the agencies to prepare accordingly.

He also plans to stop the custom inaugurated by Lindenstrauss of naming those being criticized. No longer will we know who fouled up, who wasted money and who was corrupt; the result will be “pareve” reports that no one will want to read. Deterrence will vanish, and after a report or two the media will no longer bother with them. All the corrupt players will rejoice.

Englman announced that he will stress “the administrative and financial efficiency aspect,” so I have a suggestion. The State Comptroller’s Office has a serious problem of inflated salary levels and manpower, because over the years the comptrollers have made sure to increase their staff and raise salaries by several percentage points annually. The result is that today the salary of comptroller’s office employees is 60 percent higher than those of other government workers, with dozens of employees earning over 44,000 shekels ($12,500) a month – more than the director general of a government ministry. All this is in addition to excellent social benefits and completely safe tenure. This happens because the salaries in the comptroller’s office are determined by the comptroller himself and they aren’t subject to any external oversight. Even the Finance Ministry’s wages director doesn’t have the authority to intervene.

Against this background, we learned of the exceptional retirement terms granted Eli Marzel, the office’s outgoing director general. He got hundreds of thousands of shekels in benefits that were apparently not coming to him, but the office refuses to release data on how much he received and why. One wonders what the comptroller would write if this had happened in any other government ministry.

So here’s Englman’s opportunity. After all, he said he would deal with “the efficiency of agencies, to improve the use of public funds.” He should start in his own backyard. Let him at least cut the excessive manpower and his office’s extravagant salaries. We won’t be getting any real oversight or anti-corruption effort from him anyway.