More Than Just a Breach of Trust

The Supreme Court has called bribery "the root of all evil" - and for good reason. Corruption by civil servants or elected officials usually falls into one of two categories: taking bribes or breach of trust. But in terms of gravity, there is no comparison between the two.

The crime of breach of trust can occur even if a public figure received no personal benefit from his act - for instance, if he made a decision that involved a potential conflict of interests between the public good and his private interests. Bribery, in contrast, requires "a quid pro quo in exchange for an action connected with his job."

The gravity of bribery is also reflected in its maximum sentence, which was raised by an amendment passed this January. The maximum sentence for taking a bribe now stands at 10 years, up from seven years previously. By contrast, the maximum sentence for breach of trust is only three years.

The law states that a bribe need not consist of money; any type of benefit can constitute a bribe. It also states that anyone who serves as a middleman between the giver of the bribe and its recipient is liable to the same penalty as the one who actually receives the bribe.

Finally, it stipulates that a bribery conviction can rest on testimony from a single witness, even if the witness himself participated in the crime.

The indictment filed against former prime minister Ehud Olmert last August does not charge him with taking bribes, even though it accuses him of having received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.

Instead, it charges him only with fraud, aggravated fraud and breach of trust - a fact emphasized by his lawyers.

In the Investment Center case, Olmert was similarly charged with breach of trust, for having failed to recuse himself from decisions involving clients of his close friend, attorney Uri Messer, even though such decisions could clearly entail a conflict of interests between his personal and professional obligations.

In a verdict this February, the Supreme Court noted that the gravity of bribery stems from the fact that it distorts the functioning of governmental institutions.

It is essential, the court wrote, "to eradicate the plague of corruption, which constitutes a danger to society and to our institutions of government" by undermining the citizen's faith in these institutions.