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The witness, Moshe Yosef, is also a key suspect in the case. Over the past three weeks, he has given police investigators detailed testimony about how he transferred hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash from a long list of businessmen to the former coalition whip.
Most of the money was transferred after Bitan’s election to the Knesset, Yosef said. But in at least some of these cases, he said, the money was a payoff for favors Bitan gave when he was mayor of Rishon Letzion, the post he held before entering the Knesset, rather than for his work as an MK.
Bitan has so far exercised his right to remain silent. He is slated to be questioned again on Sunday, on suspicion of taking bribes. At some point in the near future, police are expected to stage a confrontation with Yosef and other suspects in the case.
Police say Yosef’s testimony will likely lead to several additional arrests.
Yosef and Bitan were good friends, and when the latter ran up debts totaling millions of shekels, the former came to his aid with several loans. But Yosef was also a middleman who arranged payments to Bitan from businessmen and contractors, police say. The businessmen would give money to Yosef under various pretexts, and he would transfer some of it to Bitan and keep some for himself.
Yosef said he didn’t always know what Bitan was supposed to do in exchange for the bribes. But he said he kept detailed records, and every time he transferred money to Bitan, he deducted the relevant amount from Bitan’s debt.
The money was transferred to Bitan in cash at Yosef’s furniture store. During a raid on the store, police found a note recording financial dealings between Bitan and Yosef.
Yosef said that when he and Bitan met at the store, they would huddle in an out of the way corner to prevent workers and customers from seeing them. Yosef would then take the cash out of his pocket – 5,000 to 10,000 shekels ($1,500 to $2,900) at a time, and sometimes more – and slip it into Bitan’s pocket.
According to Yosef, the bribes continued for almost five years. He said Bitan essentially lived off this bribe money.
Police have recordings of Yosef’s telephone conversations over the course of more than a year, including some with Bitan. But Bitan has refused to answer questions about these recordings, saying he doubts their legality. By law, MKs cannot be wiretapped except in very special circumstances, which Bitan argues don’t apply in his case.
Police are worried that Yosef’s testimony may lead to attempts on his life by the people who gave the bribes. Police suspect that the bribe givers include two members of the Jarushi family, whom they consider an organized crime ring, though Yosef’s testimony indicates that they were not among the people he served as middleman. Channel 10 television has reported in the past that police are conducting regular patrols around Yosef’s house in Rishon Letzion, and recently they also put up security cameras around the house.
Bitan’s lawyer, Efraim Demri, said he was barred from commenting so as not to obstruct the investigation.