On the afternoon of September 15, Faina Kirshenbaum arrived at the offices of the national fraud squad. Investigator Itay Biran told the former deputy minister from the Yisrael Beiteinu party that she was suspected of taking bribes, fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses.
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“You have the right to remain silent,” he added, and Kirshenbaum exercised that right throughout the investigation.
She refused to discuss her meetings and conversations with David Godovsky, Yisrael Beiteinu’s chief of staff and a key player in a corruption scandal over taxpayer money funneled to both individuals and the party.
Police believe she and Godovsky used codes to conceal their receipt of cash from anonymous sources.
“Tell me, do you have any green at home?” Kirshenbaum asked him on one occasion. “Do you need green or wood?” he queried. “I need green; I need to turn it into wood,” she responded.
At another meeting, Godovsky asked, “How much do you need?”
Kirshenbaum replied, “10, eight ... 10 is better.”
“Made of wood, right? Our own? Godovsky queried. “Yes, yes, if you can,” she replied.
“What needs to be turned into wood?” asked Biran. “Are you talking about converting foreign currency into shekels?” To which Kirshenbaum replied, “I’m exercising my right to remain silent.”
By that point, police already had evidence implicating Kirshenbaum. For instance, two impresarios said they regularly greased her palm with cash-filled envelopes to obtain state funding for performances by and for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
A woman impresario said Kirshenbaum and Godovsky demanded a cut of 10 percent of the cost of every performance, and she would hand over the money to one or the other of them after every event, either at her own home, in the middle of the street or at Yisrael Beiteinu’s Jerusalem office.
One impresario made several cash deposits to Godovsky’s bank account. But Godovsky also exercised his right to remain silent, aside from denying all the allegations against him. He is likely to be charged with taking bribes, money laundering, extortion and tax offenses.
This is the story of a systematic scam to misappropriate state funds under the noses of Finance Ministry officials, whose lousy performance as watchdogs is on full display. And cash plays a starring role in the tale.
Police found 450,000 shekels ($117,000) in cash at the home of former Agriculture Ministry Director General Rami Cohen. “It’s perfectly fine to keep such a sum at home,” he told them.
Hundreds of thousands more were found at the home of Alex Wiznitzer, who over the years headed numerous government companies: He was CEO of the Israel National Roads Company, chairman of the Mekorot Water Company and chairman of NTA, the company building the Tel Aviv light rail.
“I think there were 200,000 shekels there; that isn’t a lot of money,” Wiznitzer told the police.
Wiznitzer said he inherited the money. And that was the last question he answered. Thereafter, he, too, exercised his right to remain silent.
One question he refused to answer related to his meeting with lobbyist Yisrael Yehoshua a few weeks before the corruption scandal hit the headlines.
“Why, at your meeting, did you write Yisrael a note saying you’d prefer to work with him only in cash?” police asked. Wiznitzer kept mum. But
Yehoshua is suspected of both mediating and paying bribes.
Mordechai Dahman, former head of the Megilot Regional Council and a key state witness in the case, said that Kirshenbaum and former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov had showered government funding on him to save the Dead Sea – but not out of any concern for a natural wonder.
For years, he told police, he paid Yeshoshua to help him obtain state funds; the cut was 20 to 25 percent, in cash, of whatever money he got from the government.
Dahman obtained the bribe money, totaling tens of thousands of shekels, from a contractor with whom the regional council often worked.
The bribes were then concealed in boxes of dates or of Ahava cosmetics.
Initially, Dahman said, Yehoshua told him the booty was shared with Misezhnikov and Wiznitzer. Later, the lobbyist reported that Kirshenbaum also got a cut.
“I asked him how many people were involved in this,” Dahman told police, “and then he told me about Faina. I told him it’s destroying the state. He told me, ‘You know everyone’s like this, not just Stas and Faina.’”
Yehoshua, who also chose to remain silent, denies all the allegations. So does Misezhnikov.
“In another country, I’d get a prize for what I did for the Dead Sea,” the former minister complained to his interrogators. “Here, I’m being investigated.”
When police sought his response to Dahman’s testimony about cash in boxes of dates, Misezhnikov laughed. “Where’s the money?” he retorted.
“But incidentally, I really did get dates from Motzi,” he added, referring to Dahman by his nickname.
Misezhnikov is slated to be charged with taking bribes, though not in connection with Dahman’s allegations.
Dov Litvinoff, head of the Tamar Regional Council, is expected to be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
He told police he had asked a friend with close ties to the ruling parties to help him obtain government funding, and the friend told him to pay 400,000 shekels to an Ashkelon contractor as a “fee” for obtaining three million shekels in state funds for the Dead Sea Research Institute.
The friend, he added, told him Wiznitzer was the one whose palm needed greasing, and that Wiznitzer wanted a 25 percent cut of the government grant.
Prosecutors haven’t yet decided whether to indict Wiznitzer.
Gershon Mesika, former head of the Samaria Regional Council, told police that Kirshenbaum had offered him a deal: She would arrange 3.5 million shekels in state funding to pay off the Samaria Development Company’s debts, and he would transfer 1.5 million of that sum to Yisrael Beiteinu and/or people connected with it.
Under this deal, which was strictly verbal, the Samaria Development Company paid hundreds of thousands of shekels to a consultant close to Kirshenbaum. It also paid for buses to ferry party activists to a conference for retirees, and apparently also financed Kirshenbaum’s silent partnership in a tobacco importing company.
“I understood that these people had provided or were providing services to Yisrael Beiteinu, and the payments we gave them were on account of those services,” Mesika told police. “But that’s my own logic, not something I was told.”
Inter alia, Mesika was asked to give money to the Russian-language internet site IzRus, which backed Yisrael Beiteinu in the 2015 election campaign. The party also bought campaign ads on IzRus, and Dahman, who was asked to give money to the site as well, said he was told explicitly that the money was to cover the party’s debt.
Though IzRus denied any connection to Yisrael Beiteinu, during one conversation with a senior party official, a senior IzRus employee referred to party chairman Avigdor Lieberman as “your boss and ours.”
“Boss” and its Hebrew equivalent, “menahel,” were the terms Yisrael Beiteinu members commonly used to describe Lieberman, today the defense minister. No evidence ties Lieberman directly to the scam, but some key players in it traded on their closeness to Lieberman to persuade regional councils and organizations to open their wallets.
By the time police began their undercover investigation, many of the scam’s key figures were being very cautious. They used code words and frequently said certain things were “not for the telephone.”
Dahman told police that eight months before they knocked on his door, Yehoshua had already warned him that an undercover probe was underway and their phones had been tapped.
The source of this information, Yehoshua told him, was “a senior officer in Lahav 433,” the police unit in charge of corruption cases. Consequently, Dahman and Yehoshua decided to move their conversations to different phones.