Ex-pen Pals

Holyland has cracked the thin veneer of skepticism concerning whether, at the end of the legal proceedings, a former prime minister can be a guest of the prison service.

Shimon Dana clearly remembers Shmuel Dachner and the chauffeured Mercedes that awaited him outside the Dana Pens shop on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street 10 years ago. Dana also remembers Israel Police Maj.-Gen. Yoav Segalowitz and his staff. As head of the National Economic Investigations Unit, Segalowitz first visited Dana's shop three years ago, with his deputy Varda Shoham. Segalowitz and Shoham were engaged in a top-secret investigation that led them to Ehud Olmert's pen collection. That collection appeared in a declaration of assets submitted to the state comptroller, which was apparently false, as Olmert considerably understated the pens' value.

A week ago, younger officers showed up at Dana's shop again. Among the Parkers, the Watermans and the Pelicans, the collectors and investors, the investigators spent hours examining the treasures and the company books to determine whether Dachner, a real-estate developer, who is now being questioned about the Holyland Project had told them the truth when he said that a decade before, he had bought a pen from Dana with the declared intention of giving it as a gift to someone. Thus far, Dachner's testimony has been found to be reliable.

When the gag order on the fact that there is a state witness in the Holyland affair (but not his identity) was lifted yesterday, there was no answer as to whether or when Ehud Olmert would be arrested. The police will find him when they so desire, in order to get his explanations.

Segalowitz, who grew up in Tel Aviv just a three-minute walk from Dana's shop, is the brains behind the Holyland investigation. He is introspective and discreet, and avoids the spotlight. Under his baton, and with the support of Police Commissioner David Cohen, a small team of investigators from the Anti-Fraud Unit worked in absolute secrecy. The suspects were very surprised to be called in for questioning, which prevented them from coordinating stories in advance or otherwise interfering with the investigation. Some were definitely worried about being arrested.

In his first visit to Dana, at the end of 1999 or the beginning of 2000, Dachner explicitly mentioned the name of "our friend." Dana is one of Israel's biggest fountain-pen experts. It was not he who had undervalued that pen. He met Olmert, who honored him from time to time with questions by phone, only once, in 1998. For Israel's Jubilee year, Dana offered for sale a special series of 1948 pens. He then went to Jerusalem to present some of them as gifts to the president, the prime minister and the capital's mayor. The law about giving presents to government officials - which states that such recipients must declare and hand over all gifts to the state, or purchase them from it - wasn't his concern.

Then-president Ezer Weizman received a pen; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Dana to cool his heels for five hours until he left without leaving a pen for Netanyahu. But the mayor of Moscow, who was visiting Olmert, received one. As did Olmert.

Then Olmert kicked all his aides out of the office to talk with Dana personally, to get his professional opinion on certain items in his collection. He apologized for never having bought a pen from Dana. He didn't need to, he explained: People give him gifts, and on his trips abroad he would receive considerable discounts - for example, from the good Jews in a famous store on 46th Street in Manhattan who are proud of their famous customer.

A year later, Dachner told Dana he wanted to buy his influential friend an especially prestigious fountain pen - an 18-karat gold Montegrappa Aphrodite, at a cost of thousands of shekels. For himself, he added, he wanted a $1,500 pen, a gold-plated Sheaffer limited edition. However, he fell in love with the Aphrodite, refused to part with it, and in the end gave the Shaeffer to his benefactor.

Blue-moon affair

Everyone who controls a valuable and limited resource, including franchises and licenses, on land, in the air or at sea, is like the owner of a mint. Public officials, whether civil servants or elected figures, can in a single breath bestow great wealth upon a few happy individuals. The allure of corruption in such situations is endemic and well known, but affairs like Holyland are cracked only once in a blue moon, especially when the gang involved is headed by a sophisticated criminal who generously distributes loot.

It takes a special kind of bait to entice a person to throw caution (regarding self-incrimination or mutual incrimination) to the winds, and to transform a partner into a collaborator. The best bait is revenge. Indeed, the human factor, in the shape of an inside informer or a criminal who was once part of the gang, is essential for an investigation. Because even though over the past five years the Israel Police has acquired impressive technological information-gathering abilities, the hole in its wallet is much more powerful.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch admitted this week, in a letter to Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner: "The police have to pay considerable sums to the mobile telephone companies and the result is this: Because of the limited budget, there are investigative files that are delayed because of non-receipt of the communications data." A bill Plesner drafted would rectify this problem and block the phone companies' greed from harming investigations.

Another weakness is the intelligence-gathering system with respect to politicians. In order for corruption to be detected and prevented, the encounter that takes place between politics and money, whether it involves building contractors or vote contractors, needs basic, constant monitoring. This requires an extensive network of police sources, not stool pigeons, who know that intelligence coordinators are interested in their reports and that ears of higher-ups are waiting to hear them. A condition for this is an aggressive command level, free of corruption and willing to be subjected to criticism for "spying on elected officials."

There are four crucial postions in such cases: the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Department, the police commissioner, state prosecutor and attorney general. After the command level comes court supervision. Segalowitz, who started his career as a police prosecutor, has had the good fortune to be assigned to a judge who is deeply familiar with police work: Abraham Heiman, vice president of the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court. It is Heiman who has approved orders, details of which have not necessarily been released for publication thus far, and has been dealing with arrest requests. Heiman himself is a retired police major general, who headed the Tel Aviv District's prosecution department a few years ago. His decisions reflect his personal experience and an understanding of the rate of progress and the working assumptions of the investigators who are dealing with the suspects.

If indictments for serious crimes are filed in the Holyland affair, however, they will come before a district court, not Heiman, who himself noted yesterday that the grounds for launching an investigation and arrests will not necessarily suffice as a basis for indictments and convictions. This is healthy skepticism, but as the number of people under arrest is so large and the evidence is accumulating like drumbeats, one can expect the suspects to race for state's witness arrangements and plea bargains.

Passing the torch

The top brass of the national fraud squad will undergo a big change within a few weeks, when its head, Police Brig.-Gen. Shlomi Ayalon, and his deputy, Commander Nahum Levy, both retire. Ziva Agami and Ephraim Bracha who are due to replace the two, are supposedly among the police's best investigators. Even if this is true, it is not certain there are enough experienced, creative and aggressive people in the investigation units for the coming years.

Segalowitz, who does not entertain ambitions of becoming a district commander, will head the Investigations and Intelligence Department starting in May 2011, after the next police commissioner takes office. That person is expected to be appointed by September, and will serve for four years.

The leading candidates are currently Police Maj.-Gens. Shahar Ayalon, Uri Bar-Lev and Yohanan Danino, and Prison Service Commander Benny Kaniak. None of them will follow outgoing chief's David Cohen's path exactly, but in one area they cannot deviate: in giving strong support to the force's investigators, which sends the message that even criminals with great power will be brought to justice. Not every police commissioner has done this. Cohen, and before him Shaul Rosolio and Assaf Hefetz, were in fact exceptions.

Judging by the investigators' conduct thus far, any decision regarding whether and how to arrest Olmert will be thought out with great care, taking into consideration the effect it would have on those already under arrest.

What Olmert's precise status will be - whether under arrest, released with restrictions or free - when his current trial resumes in Jerusalem on May 6, is not so important. Holyland has cracked the thin veneer of people's skepticism concerning whether at the end of the legal proceedings, a former prime minister, the man who with his own pen signed crucial decisions, can end up as a guest of the prison service.