Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz is seeking NIS 60,000 in reimbursement from the state for legal expenses he paid to counter allegations raised against him in a report on the 2010 Carmel fire by then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
The amount of the requested refund is three times the maximum set by the Finance Ministry accountant general for a public official's response to a draft report by the state comptroller. However, the guidelines allow for exceptions to the fee ceiling.
The legal adviser to the Finance Ministry, Yoel Briss, said Steinitz's request was justified in part because the rate for legal fees set by the accountant general was a blanket rate for ministry employees. "There is no doubt," Briss said, "that the special status of a finance minister, who is different in his status from a regular civil servant, has direct ramifications on the level of risk and the severity of the damage expected as a result of negative conclusions in a report by the state comptroller."
Last month, Briss asked the Justice Ministry's director general, Guy Rothkopf, to approve Steinitz's reimbursement request. Rothkopf heads the panel that considers such requests on the part of public officeholders and members of the civil service.
Last November the cabinet recognized the right of officeholders to be reimbursed for legal expenses arising from their responses to a state comptroller draft report. Following the recent cabinet decision, the amounts of allowable legal fees to be paid by the state were also revised, to a maximum of NIS 400 per hour and a total reimbursement ceiling of NIS 10,000, but the limits were subject to exceptions.
Briss wrote to Rothkopf that the higher reimbursement amount that Steinitz was seeking was justified by the large quantity of material involved, the preparation of a response and the representation of Steinitz before the comptroller's office under unique legal circumstances. Steinitz told Haaretz that Rothkopf's committee is expected to approve the request in light of the quantity of legal work involved and the complexity and unique nature of the comptroller's findings, among other reasons.
As part of the process of developing his final report, Lindenstrauss issued two advance drafts of the report. After the first draft was developed, Steinitz asked Prof. Ariel Bendor, an expert on constitutional and administrative law from Bar-Ilan University, to represent him for an agreed fee of NIS 30,000 plus value-added tax. Bendor submitted Steinitz's response to the state comptroller's first draft and represented the finance minister at a hearing before staff from Lindenstrauss' office.
Following Steinitz's response, the state comptroller's office issued an amended draft. In an effort to draw up a response to Lindenstrauss' final draft, Steinitz retained Zvi Agmon, one of the country's leading lawyers in administrative law, for a separate fee of NIS 30,000 plus VAT, meaning that all told, Steinitz's legal fees came to NIS 60,000 plus an additional NIS 9,600 in VAT. In responding for this article, Steinitz said the fees involved were "very reasonable" in light of Bendor's and Agmon's expertise.