Olmert Wins Small Victory as Judges Halt Testimony Over Witness Coaching

The state prosecution suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday in the corruption trial of ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert and his former bureau chief Shula Zaken, as the Jerusalem District Court acceded to defense attorneys' request and cut short the testimony of a key prosecution witness by three hours.

Ehud Olmert
Daniel Bar-On

The defense had asked that the cross-examination of Hadar Saltzman - the travel agent who had handled Olmert's affairs at the Rishon Tours agency - be halted after details emerged that she had been shown a document by prosecutors including questions she could expect in court and recommended answers.

The bizarre turn of events began during a hearing Monday, when Saltzman told the court that prosecutors had given her a 32-page document including questions she could expect to receive during her testimony.

Navit Negev-Ram, a member of the defense, asked judges to halt Saltzman's testimony short so that her defense team could examine the document. Negev-Ram described the document as potentially influencing Saltzman's entire testimony, and perhaps even the case itself.

"The prosecution inappropriately instructed the witness ahead of time on how to respond to questions," she said.

"We view this as having ramifications for all of the testimony given by the witness," Negev-Ram added. "This is a 32-page document, and we need time to study it, as it deals with all of the matters relevant to this witness. Under these circumstances, and in light of this document, its significance should be considered."

A judiciary panel headed by Jerusalem District Court President Mussia Arad accepted the request to stop Saltzman's testimony earlier than planned, but noted that her testimony would resume tomorrow as scheduled.

Prosecution attorneys maintain that the answers contained in the document are no more than excerpts from testimony Saltzman had already given to police. They said the text was provided to the witness during preparation for her testimony because she had said she was unable to look over the hundreds of pages of police testimony she had given.

Prosecution attorney Uri Corb said the document contained headings including "Work at Rishon Tours," "Ticketing procedures" and others, and under each appeared remarks Saltzman had made to police.

Prosecutors stressed that the document did not contain instructions that were likely to lead to significant changes in Saltzman's testimony. They admitted that the text contained notes for the attorneys' internal use and not intended to reach the witness, but characterized them as minor technical matters of little potential influence over her testimony.

Defense attorneys rejected the prosecution's claims out of hand. "Representing this document as a collection of recorded statements is far from the truth. These remarks far exceed the limits of 'refreshing memory' and require that we prepare to question this witness all over again."

The defense team said they would not necessarily ask that court proceedings be halted completely, but that they at least "be given the minimal amount of time needed to look over the document and understand its significance from our perspective."

Zaken's attorney Micha Pettman said, "It's scandalous for prosecutors to write questions and answers for a witness before he or she takes the stand, even if they are banal questions or answers which have come from his or her."

Prosecutors admitted that certain portions of the documents were emphasized with boldface type, but that "there were also statements that didn't work in our favor that were highlighted."

Olmert's media adviser said yesterday, "This is a scandal unprecedented in the history of Israeli criminal proceedings. I can't remember a single instance in which prosecutors briefed a witness on answers he or she was expected to give. This is a serious matter and we're considering the next steps we will take."