State Comptroller May Question Foreign Witnesses in 'Bibi-Tours' Investigation

Micha Lindenstrauss may ask AG to quiz witnesses abroad who cannot be subpoenaed for questioning in Israel, as part of probe of trips abroad made by PM and his wife.

The state comptroller may ask the attorney general for permission to question witnesses living abroad who cannot be subpoenaed for questioning in Israel, as part of his investigation of trips abroad made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. The comptroller made the announcement Tuesday after leaving a special session of the Knesset State Control Committee.

At this point, it is yet known what Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein will say about State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' request. The comptroller's office does not have the authority to ask witnesses abroad to participate in its inquiries.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu - GPO - 6/7/2010

The Knesset committee Tuesday endorsed the comptroller's proposal to expand the scope of his inquiry from trips of the prime minister and his spouse to trips of all ministers and deputy ministers since 2006. The comptroller will also investigate the funding of Netanyahu's primaries campaign, and any connection between that and the funding of Netanyahu's foreign travel.

The videotape of the original Channel 10 investigative report that focused on Netanyahu's trips and how they were paid for was sent to the comptroller Tuesday, and will be used by the special team conducting the investigation, headed by Yuval Hayu. He is in charge of the ministries control division at the comptroller's office.

Initially, the team will look into hundreds of requests for travel permits that were submitted by ministers and deputy ministers to the comptroller's office. Its permits committee, active since the 1980s, examines requests for travel in which foreign sources pay the cost and examines whether there is a conflict of interest according to the rules set by the Asher committee. The permits committee is chaired by Judge (ret. ) Yehudit Tzur.

After mapping past travel permits, the team will compare these requests to actual departures of ministers and deputy ministers as registered by the security authorities. Any minister leaving the country other than a work trip for the ministry must report his or her travel to the security authorities, so security arrangements can be made at the destination.

Any invitation to travel abroad involving foreign funding outside the scope of duty of the minister or deputy minister requires extensive checks by the ministry's legal adviser, who looks into whether the trip constitutes a "gift" according to the law on gifts to state officials.

The investigative team will also approach the travel agency that Netanyahu used to organize his travel, for testimony and documentation. The Israel Bonds organization which, according to Channel 10, sponsored some of Netanyahu's foreign travels, will also be approached, as will the journalist who gave the Channel 10 report, Raviv Druker.

Lindenstrauss said Tuesday the inquiry will take months, but would not give a clear schedule.

The Knesset State Control Committee also debated a Likud-sponsored proposal to expand the comptroller's inquiry to travels undertaken by MKs. The legal adviser of the Knesset, Eyal Yinon, said at the meeting that the Knesset Ethics Committee checks the travel arrangements of an MK, while ministers and deputy ministers must submit requests to the state comptroller's permits committee. MK Yariv Levin (Likud ) then tabled an alternative proposal, suggesting the comptroller would investigate travels of ministers, deputy ministers and presidents over the past decade.

At the end of the meeting the comptroller said an investigation covering travels over such an extended period would run into technical difficulties and would demand extra manpower in his office.

Yinon said that Mike Balas, deputy attorney general, clarified the regulations on the foreign travel of ministers, deputy ministers and their spouses several months ago.