One Uzani, Three Pipelines

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss yesterday announced the establishment of a unit to investigate corruption in the grimy seam between the rich and government.

We can expect Lindenstrauss to be roundly insulted by both the rich and the powerful. If you ask them, and even if you don't, they'll tell you there is no such link. They are merely skillful and competitive businessmen, that's all; the politicians are the guardians of the public coffers, that's all; and here and there, their interests coincide, that's all.

Leaks are already emanating from certain business and government circles in Jerusalem that the comptroller simply "understands nothing," and is just trying to make the headlines. We can probably expect that de-legitimization campaign to continue.

But anybody with eyes in his head, a little experience in business, and some acquaintance with pork-barrel politics knows it well: the big money lies in that grimy seam. Pipelines pass through it, transporting money from the bank accounts of taxpayers to sweethearts of government and hordes of fixers.

Lindenstrauss' new unit could start its investigation with Israel Railways. It wouldn't have to work hard or dig deep, just scratch the surface. It would find what we've been claiming in this column for years. Namely:

Behind the slogans of the economists and advisers regarding the vast importance of the train system as a form of "investment in infrastructure" is a vast clique of businessmen, fixers and politicians. They made, are making and mainly will make fortunes by siphoning off hundreds of millions of shekels from the billions Israel Railways will invest.

Here are a few related events from just the last week.

The state comptroller and fraud squad are looking into alleged grave irregularities in the Railways' purchase of used railway cars for NIS 200 million in 2003. The comptroller's report centers on the circumstances under which Israel Railways bought 10 used cars from Sweden.

For one thing, the technical specifications of the rolling stock, which had been made by a Danish company that the Canadian company Bombardier acquired in 2002, were inappropriate to conditions in Israel. Israel Railways commissioned Bombardier to upgrade the cars to make them suitable to Israel's climate and rail tracks.

The comptroller focused on the relations between KGM, a company headed by Moshe Kornick, and the former general manager of Israel Railways, Yossi Snir, and his successor, Yossi Mor. A key question Lindenstrauss is examining, is whether the technical data presented to the Israel Railways board of directors, based on which the board decided to buy the Swedish cars, were accurate. Or, had the board been presented with false data.

The comptroller is looking into suspicions that some of the NIS 200 million cost had been siphoned off to some individuals involved in the transaction.

Mutually appreciative

Another method, not criminal but certainly ugly (and quite the norm), was revealed Monday. It transpires that right after his retirement from Israel Railways, former general manager Amos Uzani was named special adviser to the corporation for $7,000 a month. His successor also had been named a consultant after he stepped down. Now both are advising Israel Railways in parallel.

Why the hell should a former general manager be re-hired as an adviser? Doesn't Israel Railways have enough managers? Or is that simply how things are done at the Railways, and at other government bodies - you retire but we continue to pay you fat checks each month, knowing you'll be appreciative. We will, too.

What does Uzani do in his capacity of adviser? Who knows: that's between him and the Railways. Meaning, between him and the taxpayer shoveling all that money into his bank account each month.

It turns out that Uzani not only advised the Railways, but also served as a supplier. The press reported last month that Siemens won a giant deal supplying 86 train cars to Israel for NIS 700 million. The deal includes an option to supply 585 more cars for NIS 5 billion.

Now it appears that Siemens used to have an adviser, one Amos Uzani, who had been the manager of Israel Railways. On the eve of taking his civil service job, he transfered all his shares in his consultancy to his 20-year-old daughter. A Google search revealed yesterday that said offspring appears nowhere as an expert on trains.

Boat to Haifa

Moreover, the former head of the Israel Railways economics division, Eli Delitsky, recently left the public sector to become chief financial officer at the Haifa Port corporation.

Wait wait wait. What does Haifa Port have to do with anything? It does, it does. Well connected top public sector officials, former and current, do not go hungry. Uzani left Israel Railways and got a plush job at Haifa Port. These people jump from one monopoly to another oligopoly, it doesn't matter where, as long as the infusion from government never ceases.

Got it yet? No? Let's draw the picture: Uzani's bank account was fed by three pipelines: Haifa Port, Israel Railways and Siemens. But make no mistake: Siemens didn't pay Uzani to advise it on reorganizing its manufacturing plant in Munich. No, it paid him to advise on Israel Railways tenders, and again, the money is ultimately that of the Israeli taxpayer.

How could such a high-ranking public official, with control over billions of shekels belonging to the public, stop for breathers in the private sector? Hah. What did you think, that he'd settle for living on his port salary of about NIS 30,000 and change? Who could live on a salary like that?

"Elements with vested interests are engaged in a smear campaign that has no basis in reality," Uzani commented for the record. "All my work as an adviser to Israel Railways and at my consultancy were conducted with the approval of all the elements at the authorities and in compliance with the law."

And finally, kids, here's a riddle for you. What will Amos Uzani do when his job at Haifa Port ends?

a. Maybe he will land a consultancy agreement from Israel Ports, shunting him business and also cutting him a monthly coupon from a government oligopoly.

b. Maybe he will resume running Israel Railways, while advising suppliers contending for giant tenders by Haifa and other ports.

c. Maybe it doesn't matter. With the coupon he cut from Siemens, he will never have to work another day in his life.