Israeli Watchdog Calls to Probe Netanyahu's Receipt of $300,000 in Legal Aid

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira charges the PM had no permission to receive from two businessmen closely affiliated with him

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit in Jerusalem, September 23, 2014. Now attorney general, Mendelblit could be the most influential player in the 2019 election.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit in 2014. Attorney General Mendelblit could be the most influential player in the 2019 election.Credit: AP
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira sent a letter Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Monday reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had received $300,000 to pay for his legal defense without getting permission from the comptroller or informing him about the funds. The comptroller asked Mendelblit to examine the significance of the money transfer.

Last week Haaretz revealed that Netanyahu had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from two businessmen to pay the lawyers representing him and his wife Sara in the investigations and legal proceedings against them. The money was transferred to Netanyahu between March 2017 and March 2018, but it was only in April that his lawyers requested permission to accept the funds.

>> Netanyahu raised $300,000 in legal defense fees without permission

At that time, Netanyahu’s lawyers asked Mendelblit to allow two American businessmen who are close to Netanyahu to help him pay an estimated millions of shekels in legal fees. The businessmen have been identified as Spencer Partrich and Netanyahu’s cousin, Nathan Milikowsky. Both have testified in Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have accepted expensive gifts from tycoons. Partrich confirmed in his testimony that he had purchased suits for Netanyahu that cost tens of thousands of shekels, but claimed that Milikowsky had later repaid him. Milikowsky was summoned to testify in the case after Netanyahu claimed under questioning that he had bought cigars with cash he received from a relative.

In a legal opinion issued in July, Mendelblit said that on the face of it, a contribution by wealthy people to cover Netanyahu’s legal expenses did not constitute a violation of the Gifts Law. However, Mendelblit made clear that soliciting such funds requires the approval of a special permits committee that sits in the State Comptroller’s Office, which is authorized to allow or forbid ministers or deputy ministers from actions that could pose a conflict of interest.

The two-person permits committee, headed by a retired judge, examined Netanyahu’s request and rejected it. “It is improper for wealthy people to finance legal expenses stemming from a criminal investigation that includes suspicions of criminal acts connected to wealthy people,” the committee said. “Such funding could undermine the public’s trust in the integrity of government representatives.”

Recently Netanyahu’s new lawyer, Navot Tel Zur, asked that the committee revisit its decision regarding the financing of his legal defense. In his request, Tel Zur noted that Milikowsky had already given Netanyahu $300,000, which had been paid to several different lawyers. The revelation surprised the comptroller and members of the permits committee, and led to Shapira asking Mendelblit to examine the matter. The comptroller sent Mendelblit a copy of Tel Zur’s new request, along with a letter from MK Shelly Yacimovich, who had submitted a complaint last week about Netanyahu receiving funds without permission.

The State Comptroller’s Office said that documents had been sent to Mendelblit for a “reexamination” of his position. “When the committee was debating the prime minister’s request to received funds to finance his defense expenses, the permits committee and the state comptroller didn’t know he had already received $300,000 from Mr. Milikowsky,” the office said. “As a result, the state comptroller sent a letter to the attorney general, since the comptroller doesn’t know whether, when the attorney general examined the prime minister’s first request, he had all the details and data included in the current request.”

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