State Watchdog Committee Members Resign Over Interference in Netanyahu Case

New State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman told his special permits committee it does not have authority to ask Netanyahu to return legal defense funds

State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman with Netanyahu, June 2019.

Three members of a special government permits committee announced their resignations on Thursday in protest over what they termed the state comptroller’s interference in their work on issues involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At a meeting two weeks ago State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman disagreed with the committee’s decision that Netanyahu must repay $300,000 he received from his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, to fund his legal defense. The committee argued that since Netanyahu never received its permission to accept funds from Milikowsky, the money must be returned. But Englman said ordering the refund exceeded the panel’s authority.

The committee has thrice refused Netanyahu’s request for permission to raise money for his legal defense from Milikowsky and another American businessman, Spencer Partrich.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's man in the comptroller's seat | Editorial ■ Netanyahu's new government watchdog plans to shutter anti-corruption wing

According to a report by Channel 13 television last month, Englman told the committee, “your job is to decide whether or not to grant permits, and nothing more than that. Don’t run my office for me.”

The three responded with a letter denying that they had exceeded their authority and terming Englman’s statements unacceptable.

The resignations were submitted by Nurit Yisraeli, Avigdor Ravid and retired Judge Ezrah Kamma. The panel’s chairman, former Judge Shalom Brenner, hasn’t resigned, but his term ends next month in any case – which is also true for the three who did resign.

Last month, Haaretz reported that Englman, who was nominated by the governing coalition, plans to foment a revolution in the State Comptroller’s Office to go easier on the government and state agencies. In particular, he seeks to shut down a unit that specializes in investigating high-level government corruption. At a meeting in his office, he suggested that the unit focus instead on auditing the office’s own reports.

Haaretz also reported that when several finished or almost finished reports by the office’s economic and security divisions landed on Englman’s desk recently, he sent them back with an unusual demand – that they include some positive statements about the agencies under review. Several senior officials in his office voiced surprise over this directive, saying they had never before encountered anything like it.

“This isn’t the state comptroller’s job,” one source involved in the issue said. He then suggested sarcastically that Englman’s title be changed from state comptroller to “state extoller.”

The previous head of the permits committee resigned in March, saying he felt the panel was being subjected to political pressure aimed at making it change its decisions on Netanyahu’s requests. Awni Habash, a former district court judge, had served as the panel’s chairman since 2012. He didn’t elaborate on the source of the pressure.

Habash’s resignation followed a dispute between the committee and then-Comptroller Joseph Shapira, the man who appointed him, over a request by Netanyahu’s lawyers to appear before the committee a second time to argue their client’s request. Shapira ruled that the panel must at least let them state their case in writing, though it needn’t let them appear in person.