Cracks Appear in Olmert's Defense in Rishon Tours Affair

Documents submitted by the prosecution to the Jerusalem District Court appeared to show that contrary to what he has claimed, the former PM was very involved in his overseas travel arrangements.

Cracks appeared Monday in former prime minister Ehud Olmert's defense strategy, when documents submitted by the prosecution to the Jerusalem District Court appeared to show that contrary to what he has claimed, he was very involved in his overseas travel arrangements.

The documents were submitted as part of the testimony of Olmert's former travel planner, Rachael Risby-Raz. She is the key witness for this portion of the trial, which centers on allegations that Olmert double-billed various nonprofit agencies for the same flights abroad and used the surplus to fund private trips for himself and his family.

olmert - Tomer Appelbaum - September 6. 2010
Tomer Appelbaum

Olmert, first as mayor of Jerusalem and then in various cabinet posts, was a sought-after speaker at overseas fund-raisers. But he has consistently claimed that his official responsibilities left him no time to deal with the financial arrangements for these trips.

The documents submitted Monday, however, include notes in Olmert's handwriting that do deal with the details of how these trips were paid for.

The most damning document, in the prosecution's view, is an itinerary for Olmert's June 2005 trip to New York, at which he was to address two different organizations. The document contains a note from Risby-Raz reading, "Ehud, please specify who needs to pay for what," along with an addendum that one group "can only pay $250."

Below is a response from Olmert: "Negative. I don't take tips."

But he did tell her not to take any money from a third group, Bnei Akiva.

In another document that seems to indicate his involvement in the details of his travel plans, he instructs Risby-Raz to use his frequent-flyer points to upgrade him to first class.

Prosecutor Uri Corb began by showing Risby-Raz a document detailing the surplus funds acquired on some of these trips and asking her what happened to the extra money.

"The money went to Rishon Tours," the travel agency, she answered, saying that was the order she had received from her predecessor.

It was this account at Rishon Tours that was then allegedly used to finance Olmert's private trips.

At another point, she admitted that "there's no connection between the bill and the actual flight. In my eyes, there was no connection between what the organization committed to pay and how much it [the flight] ended up costing."

Thus a given group would often pay more than the flight actually cost, with the balance going to Olmert's account at Rishon Tours.

But attorney Navit Negev-Ram, representing Olmert, retorted that had Olmert's goal been to milk these organizations of extra money for himself, he would not have ordered that some, like Bnei Akiva, be exempted from paying anything.

Moreover, she said, the Rishon Tours account ultimately had a deficit, not a surplus.

Risby-Raz also faces charges on this matter, and her attorneys had thus sought to get her testimony in Olmert's case delayed, arguing that it would hurt her ability to defend herself by revealing elements of her own defense strategy to the prosecution. But Olmert's three-judge panel rejected this request Monday, citing the great public interest in finishing the trial swiftly, so her testimony proceeded as scheduled.

Initially, Risby-Raz had troubled controlling her tears, and said she "regrets having moved to Israel."