Netanyahu Bid to Let Tycoon Friends Fund Legal Defense Rejected

State Comptroller Office declined prime minister's request for funding initially approved by AG, adding it risks harming public trust in government

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to an advisor during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, December 2, 2018.
Gali Tibbon, AP

The Permits Committee in Israel's State Comptroller Office declined on Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request to accept funding from two tycoons associated with Case 1000 – the cigars-and-champagne case – to help fund his legal defense. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved in July the request for funding from Spencer Partrich and Nathan Milkowsky, who is Netanyahu’s cousin.

The committee concluded it "inappropriate" for tycoons to fund legal fees resulting from an investigation into alleged crimes concerning relations with other tycoons. Such funding, according to the committee, might harm the public's trust in government.

Furthermore, the committee stated that Netanyahu did not provide answers for "basic questions," such as the amount of money he wishes to raise, the sum each of the potential sponsors are willing to provide or the legal fees already charged for each of the prime minister's cases.

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The committee, whose three membes include a former district court judge and former officials in the State Comptroller Office, reached its decision on Thursday. Attorney Navot Tel-Zur, head of Netanyahu's defense team, asked on Monday for a 30-day delay before publishing the committee's decision, but the latter declined his request.

Last year Partrich testified as part of the investigation into Case 1000 and was asked by police to explain the gifts he had given Netanyahu in recent years. He confirmed that he had purchased suits costing tens of thousands of shekels for the prime minister, but said Netanyahu’s cousin, American businessman Milikowsky, had returned the money to him later.

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Avichai Mandelblit during cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014.
Menahem Kahana/Reuters

Milikowsky was also called upon to give evidence after Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had claimed under questioning that he had purchased cigars using cash that he'd received from a relative. Police recently recommended to charge Netanyahu with bribery over Case 1000, as well as two additional cases, mainly dealing with the prime minister's relations with the media.

Netanyahu's request to accept funding from the two witnesses was submitted in April to his legal advisor Shlomit Barnea-Farago, who asked AG Mendelblit to conclude whether the prime minister was allowed to receive funding from Partrich and Milkowsky. The request and did not specify the sum requested by Netanyahu to cover legal fee, nor did it include any reference to Netanyahu's inability to cover the costs.

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Mendelblit determined that the requested funding doesn’t fall under the definition of a “gift,” and thus there’s no obstacle to accepting it, but said that in order to receive final approval for the funding, Netanyahu must appeal to the Permits Committee. The committee is responsible for discussing requests of ministers and deputy ministers regarding money and potential conflicts of interest.

However, Mendelblit's decision did not make any reference to the fact the both tycoons have testified as part of the investigation.

The attorney general suggested that the committee set conditions for the approval, including a commitment to use the funds solely for the premier’s legal defense; that there be a cap on the amount and that there be a reporting mechanism. Mendelblit also instructed that a conflict of interest agreement be formulated that would relate to the relationship between the prime minister and Partrich and Milikowsky, and forbid the premier to deal with any issues that involve them.