The Bottom Line / The Keep-quiet Fraud Squad

United Mizrahi Bank CEO Victor Medina adopted a belligerent tone at yesterday's press conference that he convened to give a statement regarding a series of embezzlement cases at the bank.

United Mizrahi Bank CEO Victor Medina adopted a belligerent tone at yesterday's press conference that he convened to give a statement regarding a series of embezzlement cases at the bank. Medina claimed that the bank is the victim of a well-timed campaign, but declined to say who he thought was behind the campaign.

Medina was particularly exasperated that the spotlight seems to be focused on his bank, even though relative to the rest of the banking system there is nothing exceptional about the number of embezzlement cases discovered at Mizrahi or the financial scope of these cases. Medina even dropped a hint in the direction of Bank Leumi Switzerland, where a NIS 400 million embezzlement occurred 18 months ago, but for some reason did not arouse the same kind of interest.

To make his point about just how "normal" United Mizrahi is, Medina let himself get carried away with an absurd analysis of the bank's "market share" of embezzlements.

The Trade Bank affair brought the question of embezzlement in the banking system into the public eye - for this, all credit goes to Esther Alon. Each case of embezzlement grabs the headlines and is the subject of intense discussion, blurring the distinction between old cases and new ones, and large embezzlements and small.

While some of the affairs published in recent days are not new, they do shed some light on the conduct of the Supervisor of Banks and the police regarding embezzlement. As for the banks themselves, it transpires that they don't always report cases of embezzlement to the police and that when they do, it is often some time after discovery of the affair. The banks' tardiness in reporting stems from a desire to get back as much of the stolen money as possible, for the bank that is, because the customer will be compensated in any case. This raises the question of whether saving the bank money justifies delaying commencement of criminal procedures.

As for the Supervisor of Banks, the official position is that locating cases of embezzlement is not his concern and even when such cases are brought to his attention, the supervisor does not inform the police. It would seem that the Esther Alon affair necessitates a review of the Supervisor's policy, both with regard to watching out for cases of embezzlement and to reporting them to the police. There should be no question about if and when the police should be brought in. In cases of criminal doings, there should be no leeway to hide behind bank secrecy requirements.

The police have also come out looking tarnished from the embezzlements. Despite receiving information three years ago about the embezzlement at the United Mizrahi Bank branch in Bnei Brak, the police did not launch an investigation. The excuse that no complaint was filed is paltry indeed and shows the police's unwillingness to deal with the matter. Perhaps the police do not have the suitable personnel to deal with complex embezzlements; in that case, it can use the services of the bank supervisor's auditors.

So far, there is no cooperation between the Bank of Israel and the police. This is reflected, inter alia, in the fact that central bank auditors have not been allowed into the premises of Trade Bank or been given access to its books and are not involved in investigating the affair.

The banks' customers themselves have no cause to be worried by the embezzlements, as the banks are required to compensate them for any losses caused in this way. But the public should be extremely concerned at the lack of cooperation between the Supervisor of Banks and the police, and about the shirking of responsibility by all those involved to deal with and investigate embezzlement cases.