Hirchson's Former Money Man Convicted of Stealing NIS 10 Million

Prosecution likely to demand at least 7 years in prison for ex-finance minister, on trial for fraud.

Ovadia Cohen, the former head of the finance division at the National Workers Organization, was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison on Thursday. The Tel Aviv District Court also required Cohen to pay a NIS 70,000 fine. Cohen is a key figure in the fraud and theft affair alongside former finance minister Abraham Hirchson, who is on trial separately.

In a plea bargain, Cohen was convicted of stealing NIS 10 million. Cohen and two other defendants were tried separately from Hirchson and three others, so that Cohen can now testify against them. This was the second plea deal in the affair. Ronit Garti, a former NWO accountant, was sentenced Sunday to six months in prison for conspiring to steal the funds, as well as forging corporate documents. She might very well be sentenced to community service.

Cohen's plea bargain may be a sign of the future for the defendants in the other trial: Hirchson; former NWO director-general Yitzhak Russo; Zion Cohen, the former CEO of the NWO's pension fund; and the former treasurer of nonprofit organization Nili, Amatzia Bonner.

It now seems likely that the prosecution will not settle for less than seven or eight years in prison for Hirchson, and this will motivate him even more to fight for acquittal. However, a long, drawn-out trial could wind up costing Hirchson at least 10 years in prison if he loses. Cohen is a central figure in the alleged transfer of money to both Hirchson and Cohen's brother David, who had sunk deep into debt due to gambling losses and is also a defendant.

Testimony against Hirchson starts

Garti was the first witness to testify against Hirchson, when the evidentiary stage of Hirchson's trial started on Thursday.

She told the court that she would count cash and stuff it into unmarked envelopes for Hirchson. She said she kept track of the money in handwritten lists containing the amounts and dates of payments.

Hirchson's code name, used by Garti and her former boss, Gideon Ben Zur, was "the big one." She later replaced Ben Zur in his job.

Hirchson's lawyers attacked Garti about why Ben Zur used a code name for Hirchson, but she replied: "Ask him." In her lists she referred to Hirchson as A., the first letter of his first name. When asked why, she said "no reason." She said Ben Zur ordered her to do so. At first she did not know it was Hirchson, but later when she found out she continued the practice.

She said she asked Russo about the money, and when Judge Bracha Ophir-Tom asked why it took her so long to ask, Garti said she had a lot of work to do after she took over as head of the department.

She denied that the funds given to Hirchson were part of his severance pay or compensation, and emphasized that she was not in on alleged secret agreements between Ben Zur and Hirchson. She did admit that when she asked Russo, he said the payments were part of Hirchson's severance compensation.

The messenger who allegedly transferred the funds will testify on Sunday.