Taking Stock / Chasing Headlines (And Rotters)

We have already discussed the proper meaning of common Israeli expressions such as "good friend" and "time to look after his family." Common, that is, in the annals of corruption and stupidity.

In the Rot Lexicon, "good friend" usually means a person who controls some sort of public assets and diverts them to "friends" at the expense of people who are "not friends."

"Time to look after his family" is a derivative of "good friend." After the "good friend" (usually a bureaucrat or politician) has diverted the public assets to "friends," the time comes for said "good friend" to enjoy the loot of his labors as well: He quits the job that gave him control of said assets and moves to the side of the beneficiaries, usually the private sector.

Naturally, he took care of his own while working in the public sector as well. But then, all he did was plant seeds, quietly, cleverly and, mainly, secretly. Then, when he tosses off the public-sector mantle, he does it with a bang, because now, it is legitimate to start chasing the shekels.

The lexicon grows

Last week, we were blessed with a new term to add to our lexicon of louche: "headline chaser." Its ostensible progenitors were Micha Lindenstrauss and Yaron Zelekha, respectively the state comptroller and treasury accountant general.

Lindenstrauss took over as state comptroller a year ago, after a long and controversial stint as a judge. His appointment was greeted with howls of protest and concern that he would prove to be cowardly and toothless.

Perhaps stung by the criticism, Lindenstrauss soon proved to be one of the most influential watchdogs the institution has ever known. He flails mercilessly at public institutions wherever they be; he writes cutting reports; he does not shy from leveling personal censure and does not hesitate to sink his fangs into every juicy scandal appearing in the press.

Loving the limelight

What do his victims say, and loudly? That he is just chasing headlines. That he drums up headlines for their own sake; he does not really investigate; his charges are baseless: He just wants publicity.

This interpretation is interesting. For years, Israel's state comptrollers have been sweet old graybeards who would pen a fat annual report to which the press would devote a few pages. The day after, the whole thing would be forgotten. Nobody would check whether the recommendations were implemented, and public officialdom learned that the watchdog barked, but did not bite. Neither their reputations nor their promotions were impaired.

Then along came Micha Lindenstrauss, the "headline-chaser," and decided to introduce a new procedure. No fat (and belated) reports with vague messages and no names for him: He would pounce with a roar, and loudly, violently and quickly root out all the "good friends" in the public sector.

Anybody not living in a bubble knew that it was high time for somebody to do something about the public sector, which is directly responsible for half of Israel's gross domestic product and which has tremendous influence over resource allocation in the private sector. In recent years, the gauge for corruption has become whether an act is overtly criminal or not: Merely stinking does not count, and money, lawyers and good public relations can buy anything. We need a powerful counter-force like the state comptroller.

Public Enemy No. 2 does it backward

Public Enemy No. 2 is of course Dr. Yaron Zelekha, the Finance Ministry's accountant general. He is the most powerful figure in the public sector: He sits on the state kitty and is the one who cuts the checks.

Some of his predecessors were good people, talented, straight arrows; some were less so. But all had one thing in common: They leaped from the public sector to the private one and turned into top managers at banks or giant companies that do business with the state.

With Zelekha, it went the other way around. Most of his career had been in the private sector and academia, where he scored meteoric successes. And then, at the tender age of 33, he became the nation's accountant general.

Not for Zelekha to hoe the tired old row: He spearheaded massive reforms in the public sector. His latest act was to publish the State of Israel's balance sheet, including keen criticism of the way the Finance Ministry (and he belongs to its management) manages the national budget.

In other words, Zelekha is not one of the boys. He does not go out roistering and carousing with the guys or stealing horses with them in the dead of night. That has done him no good. Also, Zelekha has a serious problem with style and teamwork. He has been known to publicize himself in a rather embarrassing fashion and is not immune from human error. But these are not the qualities that made him so hated.

Zelekha is a Public Enemy because he wants to increase proper disclosure in the public sector. He wants to change the way the state manages money. Nobody likes that, because there are thousands upon thousands of people whose livelihood depends on the absence of disclosure, the absence of checks and controls in the public sector.

By the way, this is not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. In the United States, the New York state prosecutor, Eliot Spitzer, was dubbed a headline chaser because of his extravagant actions against the managers of Wall Street companies who stank. But like his Israeli peers in chasing headlines, his real sin was that he triggered an earthquake that shook rotten apples out of the trees, changed the norms of punishing white-collar crime on Wall Street and sent some of the "untouchables" to jail.

So when you read in the papers that somebody is viciously complaining about the state comptroller or the accountant general, you should be pleased. Their job is to annoy, to goad toward change, to intimidate.

Naturally, if you are one of the "good friends" gang, you will not be smiling as these two do their jobs. But we have a tip for you, too. When you contact us to besmirch the state comptroller or the accountant general (which has been happening more and more in recent months), do please come up with a complaint more convincing than "headline chaser." Try to relate to the substance of the matter, not the coverage thereof.