Witnesses in Olmert Graft Case Take the Stand

Travel agency staffers in Olmert's double-billing trial detail intricacies of system that 'legitimized shady acts.'

Witnesses in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday provided details about the system allegedly used by Olmert and his secretary Shula Zaken to illicitly finance overseas trips for Olmert and his family.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert

Olmert is on trial for bribery and double-billing organizations for foreign travel expenses, among other things.

The defense, however, said the prosecution had failed to prove the existence of such a network or to link it to Olmert.

The first witness was Michael Azoulay, CEO of the Ayala travel agency, which won the government tender to issue trips overseas. According to the charge sheet, the agency was used as a funnel to transfer funds from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, when Olmert served as its minister, to Rishon Tours, the agency that organized his trips.

Azoulay testified that one of the managers at Rishon Tours, Yossi Klinger, asked him to issue invoices in his name for a total of $72,000 to the ministry, to finance Olmert's trips.

"Klinger explained that his boss was a personal friend of Ehud Olmert's and had worked for him for years. He said he could not collect the money because he wasn't a franchisee," Azoulay said. "He asked me to issue the invoices, collect the money for the services and then give it to him. I said there were conditions and a nine-percent reduction. He said that was no problem. I told him we had about one percent in expenses and he agreed."

Azoulay admitted that his decision to help Klinger was "not so good... it was more or less legitimizing a shady act."

"Olmert never had anything to do with this person and had no knowledge of his doings," a member of Olmert's defense team said. "This is a man who admittedly committed fraud for a percentage and none of it has anything to do with Olmert."

Hadar Saltzman, a former travel agent at Rishon Tours, was called up as the second witness. According to her testimony, Olmert had two client accounts with the agency - one called "Olmert-Industry, Trade and Labor" and the other labeled "Olmert private."

Sometimes surplus money was received for certain trips, she said. When asked what was done with the surplus, the witness said "we used it for trips for which no money had been received. It could be used for an upgrade to first class or for another ticket for Mrs. Olmert."

Prosecutor Uri Korev asked Saltzman who told her and the other Rishon Tours staff to offset payments in this way. She answered vaguely, and finally said "the offsetting, the bottom-line balancing was done by Shula [Zaken]. I didn't suspect for a moment that I was doing anything wrong..."

"Today it was proven that there was no conspiracy," said Olmert's media advisor Amir Dan. "For months the headlines screamed about a private, secret account of Olmert's. Today it transpired that we're dealing with regular, procedural travel agency activity conducted without Olmert's knowledge."

The defense cited part of the transcript from Saltzman's interview with the police, in which she admits the private-account system was set up with an agency accountant and without the involvement of Olmert's bureau.

"They don't know... in the bureau, that there's a client card called 'Olmert private,' they don't know what goes on [in the agency]," Saltzman had told police.