The Israel Police recommended Tuesday indicting Israel's Deputy Health Minister and United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov Litzman for bribery, fraud, witness tampering and breach of trust.
Litzman, who is de facto the health minister, is suspected of using his clout at the Health Ministry to influence the professional opinions of his subordinates. In one case, Litzman allegedly tried to use his standing as deputy health minister to prevent Malka Leifer’s extradition to Australia, where she could face charges for 74 incidents of sexual assault and rape. His office denied any wrongdoing.
The second major focus of the investigation centered around Litzman's alleged improper intervention on behalf of a Jerusalem restaurant owned by an associate of the deputy health minister in an effort to prevent it being shut down over serious sanitation violations that police say made a number of people ill who consumed food from the business.
The deputy health minister is suspected of offering benefits to Health Ministry employees in exchange for their preventing the restaurant, Goldy's Beit Yisrael, from being shut down.
A third aspect of the investigation, in which Litzman was suspected of improperly attempting to get prisoners released, some of whom were convicted sex offenders, was closed.
Under Israeli law, offering a bribe is tantamount to actually paying a bribe and carries a maximum punishment of seven years in prison. The maximum penalty for witness tampering is also seven years, but is increased to nine years under aggravated circumstances. Offenses involving fraud and breach of trust carry a maximum three years in prison.
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'Clear open-door policy'
Litzman's office issued a statement: "As we have stated all along, Deputy Minister Litzman has worked during all of his years in his position on behalf of Israel's citizens with transparency and in accordance with the law." Litzman's office has a "clear open-door policy in assisting and helping the public, without discriminating among populations or sectors," providing assistance to anyone seeking it.
"The statement from the police also makes it clear that the police believe that no violations were committed in connection with most of the suspicions due to which Deputy Minister Litzman was investigated," Litzman's office noted. "Regarding the other allegations, we are certain without a doubt that after a meticulous investigation, it will be found that the deputy minister's actions were entirely without fault."
Jewish Community Watch, an organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse within the Orthodox community, has been accompanying the women who alleged abuse against Liefer. Meyer Seewald, the organization's founder and director, said the emerging details of Litzman's alleged abuse of power "to help scores of child rapists" is "deeply disappointing and angering," and that he took advice from leading ultra-Orthodox rabbinical figures should distress any observant Jew.
"Evidence of Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman's insistence in assisting child rapists goes back at least a decade, to a 2009 TV report that exposed this practice. It's long past time for Litzman to be removed from his leadership of the Health Ministry," Seewald's statement says. "We expect all coalition partners who oppose the protection of child rapists to immediately condemn Litzman and for the Prime Minister to make it clear that Litzman - and any other MK involved in this affair - will not be a member of his government."
Dessi Erlich, who along with her two sisters are among those who allege abuse by Liefer, hailed the police's decision. On her "Beyond a Survivor" Facebook page, which details each development related to Liefer and calls for her extradition to Australia, she wrote that they feel "excited, relieved and encouraged" by the news.
"We are feeling so grateful that the questions we continually raised through the #BringLeiferBack campaign resulted in one more step to achieving justice. The investigation that followed into Health Minister Litzman, brought to light the systemic cover up and support of abusers, in the highest levels of government, particularly in the Malka Leifer case."
Litzman's United Torah Judaism party colleague Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush said Litzman busies himself with charity work and providing assistance to anyone who seeks his help. "I trust and am certain that he will emerge as pure as snow and continue his welcome work."
Porush took the police to task for pursuing its investigation against Litzman, which he described as arising out of the deputy health minister's "legitimate and necessary work" in responding to requests from members of the public and "assisting the simple citizen facing complicated bureaucratic systems."
Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich said in a tweet that "I'm not familiar with the investigation materials" but "I am familiar with Litzman and his devoted bureau, which gives personal service and wonderful aid to anyone who asks, no matter their religion, race or sex."
He continued, "From the police's statement, it looks like another attempt to revoke the operational authority of those elected by the public and transfer them to clerks, and deligitimize involvement by elected officials."
In the Leifer case, Litzman is chiefly suspected of pressuring Jerusalem district psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Charnes to change his professional opinion and say that Leifer was mentally unfit to stand trial.
The psychiatrist did as Litzman told him, and in light of Dr. Charnes' professional opinion, police did not call on Liefer to stand trial, effectively preventing her extradition. A few months later, when asked for a second opinion, Dr. Charnes handed the responsibility to his deputy, who presented a professional opinion completely different from that of Dr. Charnes, finding her mentally fit.
Litzman was suspected of approaching another psychiatrist to influence his professional opinion on the matter. In his testimony, the psychiatrist told police, "Overall, I'm just a clerk and he's a minister. I know my place, and I understand what the minister wants from me." Those who testified in the case described being pressured by the deputy health minister's office, and felt a substantive fear that if they did not respond to Litzman's requests, they would be fired.
Police also considered recommending that Dr. Charnes stand trial, but ultimately decided to close the investigation against him due to lack of evidence.
Litzman was questioned by Israel Police in February on suspicion of intervening in the expert medical opinion that favored Liefer in 2016.
In early 2018, following testimonies from neighbors and people close to her and after further psychological assessments, psychiatrists determined that Leifer was faking her mental status and that she was mentally fit to stand trial.
However, according to senior sources in the health system, a senior psychiatrist working in public service refused three times to sign the statement saying she could stand trial. A complaint was then submitted to Israel’s medical union’s ethics committee by Dr. Miriam Kuttner, president of the Australian Jewish Medical Federation. Despite the complaint, the ethics committee did not discuss the topic due to the legal proceeding against Leifer.
Leifer holds Israeli citizenship and fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 just hours after the accusations against her for sexually exploiting between eight and 14 female students, including three sisters, were reported. In 2014, she was arrested in Israel after the Australian government filed extradition papers. She was later released to house arrest, before the Jerusalem district psychiatrist ruled that she was unfit to face an extradition hearing. Israeli law permits a halt in extradition proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial. Since February 2018, Leifer is being held in Neveh Tirtza prison.
Perks for officials in restaurant inspection
During the investigation, police say they learned learned that Litzman was a regular customer at Goldy's a Jerusalem restaurant and catering service, which has named several menu items after him, and that the deputy minister held private events there.
In 2015, the restaurant was ordered shut down after the Health Ministry received a report that a pregnant woman miscarried after consuming food at Goldy's that had been tainted with listeria bacteria, and according to police, two other patrons suffered life-threatening conditions after eating at the restaurant.
The police say Litzman then convened district health officials at the restaurant, including the district food service director and other top professionals, that Litzman showed the officials the premises and stated that they were clean, adding that he eats there and has had no problems as a result.
Police allege that individuals present at the meeting said Litzman left five Health Ministry officials on site, took an interest in the terms of their employment and offered them various perks, including promotion for heading off the shutdown of the restaurant. Police say they also have correspondence and other documents backing up the testimony of those present and leading to the recommendation to indict Litzman for bribery in the case.