Is MK Vaknin Blowing Smoke Around His Nonprofit?

Philip Morris donated to a nonprofit association founded by MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), who supported the tobacco giant's interests in Knesset. Vaknin sits on the Finance Committee.

MK Vaknin rents a parliamentary office at the Knesset's expense from Birkat Margalit, an association that he himself founded. The office is located in the Birkat Margalit headquarters in Shlomi.

Knesset rules forbid a Knesset member to lease a parliamentary office from a public body in which the member holds office.

Birkat Margalit is funded by ministries, local authorities - and bodies whose fiscal welfare depends on decisions made by the Finance Committee on which Vaknin sits. Among these bodies is Philip Morris.

Birkat Margalit is affiliated with Shas and is named after the deceased wife of the religious party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Its purpose is to assist needy families and poor Torah scholars. Officially Birkat Margalit is managed by Vaknin's parliamentary aide, Nissim Cohen. Vaknin himself has no position in it, according to the association's paperwork. His picture does appear alongside aid packages on the association Web site.

While an MK may be active in a nonprofit, Birkat Margalit is funded by approval of the Knesset Finance Committee on which Vaknin sits.

Philip Morris, in 2006, donated NIS 67,500 to Birkat Margalit. Meanwhile, in the last two years Vaknin has sat in eight Finance Committee meetings devoted to tobacco and cigarettes, without noting for the protocol that the association with which he's so closely affiliated received a donation from the tobacco giant. Nor did he have to, by law; yet Knesset members were surprised to learn of the connection yesterday.

Last week the Knesset Economics Committee discussed a bill requiring cigarette makers and marketers to divulge their annual advertising expenditure. The companies, including Philip Morris, demanded a delay of several months because it isn't law yet. Vaknin supported the companies and prevailed.

Before another Economics Committee debate, Vaknin did disclose his relationship with a nonprofit association. That discussion related to a bill tabled by Gideon Sa'ar to forgo VAT on donations to the poor.

Vaknin said in response that he complies with the law and that the office rental in Shlomi had been approved by the Knesset legal adviser. He also said that all funding allocations follow strict criteria. About Phillip Morris, he said: "I did not turn to Philip Morris. I do not smoke and act against smoking. My voice in the Knesset Economics Committee is not decisive."