Israel Police raided the offices on Monday of the Netanya Municipality and confiscated documents there just weeks after an investigation by Haaretz raised questions about the conduct of Mayor Miriam Feirberg-Ikar during the past two decades.
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The main questions involve possible real estate transactions worth millions in Netanya, located in the Sharon plain north of Tel Aviv, as well as family involvement in municipal affairs, and the appointment to posts at city hall of activists who worked for the mayor's reelection in 2013.
A senior police official told Haaretz that Feirberg-Ikar herself is expected be questioned under caution – meaning that there is a possibility of an indictment – and added that evidence collected so far arouses suspicions that the mayor and her family may be involved in the affairs on some level.
In addition, three people, including a lawyer and a contractor, have been held for questioning due to a suspicion of crimes of bribery, fraud, money laundering and tax offenses.
The police said that searches were conducted in the homes of the suspects, as well as in their offices and in other municipal facilities, and documents and other materials were seized for investigative purposes.
Permits for her projects
In late July Haaretz investigated the Feirberg family's assets in projects built by contractors with ties to the family of tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, along with certain construction-related and other activities at the municipality. The examination revealed, among other things, that the mayor had signed building permits for projects that include assets owned by herself and by her son.
The starting point of the newspaper's probe was a 200-square-meter seaside apartment in a project in Netanya built by contractor Avraham Tshuva, the brother of the energy and real estate magnate Tshuva. The investigation revealed that the apartment is registered in the name of a Netanya attorney, but in fact it belongs to Feirberg; the attorney is only a trustee.
The transaction in question began with the purchase of a lot about a decade ago; thereafter, the Central District Planning Committee approved a rezoning request and expanded construction rights. The result: The value of Feirberg’s land doubled. Haaretz has in its possession a building permit signed by Feirberg herself. For her part, she told the newspaper that she declared a conflict of interest years earlier.
Not far away is a project belonging to entrepreneur Itzik Tshuva, a nephew of Yitzhak Tshuva. On the top floor, also overlooking the sea, is a penthouse worth some 8 million shekels (about $2 million), which the Haaretz investigation revealed is partly owned by Feirberg’s son and his wife together with the contractor, with a 20-percent share in the asset. The mayor signed a building permit for this project too, but told Haaretz and she didn’t remember when her son informed her of the purchase. The son refused to disclose how much he paid for his share in the apartment.
Son's consulting gig
In addition, a series of testimonies indicate that Feirberg’s son and husband may have been involved in various municipal affairs. Her husband is engaged in a large city project, and holds meetings at a municipal corporation although he does not hold any official role.
Feirberg’s son Tzafrir, a lawyer, is a regular guest at the engineering department in city hall, and has access to senior municipal officials. Haaretz discovered that the son received a salary for consulting on a beach-front real estate project, located where there had been a senior citizens’ home. The son refused to tell how much he earned for the consultation, and threatened anyone who provided information to Haaretz. The land was eventually rezoned for residences and hotels, and construction rights were quadrupled.
The probe also found that six prominent activists who worked for Feirberg’s reelection three years ago have been appointed to jobs in the municipality itsel or related places of employ. Two of the positions were apparently nonexistent prior to the election. One of them – head of the department of special projects – was given to a campaigner who has only 12 years of schooling.
In addition, recordings collected during the Haaretz inquiry in July revealed possible involvement by city employees in improper political activity. The tapes indicate that municipal inspectors may have registered Likud voters: The inspectors are heard saying that senior city officials sent them on the assignment.
Mayor Feirberg had initially declared that registering for Likud was the only way to help Netanya, but later clarified that she had not instructed municipal employees to sign voters up for the party.
Coral high-rise project
In order to understand what exactly took place in the past decade, we have to go back to 2005. During that period Feirberg, who had then completed six years as the mayor of Netanya, was a member of the District Planning and Building Committee which, among other things, agreed to rezone beachfront land from hotels to residential property, and to increase the building rights there fivefold.
In 2006, Feirberg herself bought a 2.5-percent stake in the property in question (for $84,000, she says). Today that land has no hotels built on it, but it does have a 19-story high-rise project named “Coral – Luxury on the Cliff." Feirberg owns an 11th-floor apartment there worth about 4 million shekels (a little over $1 million).
In these transactions, she acted through a lawyer, Abraham Gogig, whose name was registered in the Land Registry (tabu, in Hebrew). Why conceal her ownership? She didn’t want Avraham Tshuva, one of the landowners (who is also represented by Gogig), to know of her involvement, she told Haaretz: “I didn’t want Yossi Tshuva (the owner of the land prior to the sale, and Avraham’s brother) or anyone else to know about it,” said Feirberg in a conversation with Haaretz.
Feirberg stressed at the time that she wasn’t involved in planning and permit processes related to the Coral property: “The day I made the purchase, I reported to the municipality’s legal counsel and city engineer that I had bought a piece of land, had a conflict of interest and had to recuse myself from handling,” she said.