State Comptroller at Odds With Panel Over Its Refusal to Convene on Netanyahu's Legal Fees

The panel, in Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s own office, refuses to proceed until the prime minister provides information he has promised

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a paper at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, May 12, 2019.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

A special government committee in the State Comptroller’s Office has refused to reconsider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for permission to raise money from businessmen to finance his legal defense in three pending criminal investigations against him until Netanyahu responds to its questions. But on Sunday, the state comptroller himself, Joseph Shapira, sided with Netanyahu’s lawyers and told the members of the panel that they should meet with the prime minister’s lawyers.

The committee has already twice refused Netanyahu’s request that he be allowed to raise money from businessmen to cover his legal fees. In its last ruling, it even ordered him to refund $300,000 that he had already received without permission from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky, as well as men’s suits that he received from U.S. businessman Spencer Partrich.

Shortly after that, Netanyahu petitioned the High Court challenging the panel’s decision. At a hearing two months ago, a compromise was reached at the justices’ urging, in which the two sides agreed that the committee would reconsider his request, and this time hear from his defense lawyers prior to making its decision. But the agreement also required Netanyahu to provide the panel with any information it requested.

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State Comptroller Joseph Shapira told the committee on Sunday that he agrees with Netanyahu’s lawyers that the committee “must schedule a preliminary meeting with them to avoid having them go back to the High Court of Justice.” But Shapira’s opinion isn’t binding on the committee, even though functions within his office.

Following the April 9 Knesset election, the committee asked Netanyahu’s lawyers to provide details of his assets, both in Israel and abroad, “of any type whatsoever, without exception (cash, bonds, real estate, etc.).” It also requested detailed information about the prime minister’s relationship with the donors, Milikowsky and Partrich, as well as how much he owes his lawyers, how much he has paid so far and why he needs outside help to pay his legal bills.

Defense attorney Navot Tel Zur responded that Netanyahu isn’t willing to provide any information on these issues and his defense team sees no grounds for setting preconditions for the hearing. But the committee responded that a business relationship between Netanyahu and Milikowsky had emerged during the earlier hearings, and they need details of this relationship before they can make a decision.

Last week, Tel Zur informed the committee that Netanyahu is withdrawing his request for permission to received funds from Milikowksy. Tel Zur also requested a preliminary meeting so that he can explain why his client refuses to divulge any additional information. His letter did not mention what had become of the $300,000 that Netanyahu was to return to Milikowsky.

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In response, the committee said Netanyahu’s refusal to divulge details about his relationship with Partrich or to provide the panel with an updated asset list violates the court’s ruling. “Your client is still failing to uphold the commitment you gave on his behalf at the Supreme Court,” the committee stated, adding that no additional hearing could be held without this information.

Tel Zur responded by again asking to meet with the committee to explain why Netanyahu doesn’t wish to divulge his assets. This, the panel said, was “putting the cart before the horse,” and added: “It is self-evident that this information is necessary for the committee to prepare for this meeting.” The panel also repeated that at the court hearing on March 18, Netanyahu had promised to provide the information.

“The committee is aware of the urgency of holding this supplementary hearing, but ... wishes to reiterate that as long as [Netanyahu] sticks to his refusal to give it the full details it has requested from him, no additional hearing on this issue will be scheduled,” the panel stated.

The committee is chaired by retired Judge Shalom Brenner, after the previous chairman resigned in March, claiming that he was being subjected to political pressure.