The Tel Aviv District Court on Monday morning convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert, along with nine other former senior officials and businessmen, of taking and giving bribes in the development of a massive Jerusalem construction project promoted while Olmert was mayor of the city over a decade ago.
The ruling marks the first time a former Israeli prime minister has been convicted of bribery in what has been called one of the worst corruption scandals in the country’s history.
The verdict appeared to put an end to Olmert’s lingering hopes of making a comeback to national politics. Sentencing will take place at a later date, but legal experts say that the conviction will almost certainly entail years in prison for Olmert. A first sentencing hearing was set for April 28. Olmert’s attorneys did not immediately say whether they would appeal the verdict.
“We will weigh our options going forward,” lead defense attorney Roy Blecher said outside the courtroom. “The last word has not been said. Today is not just about Mr. Olmert. We will read the 700-page decision and prepare accordingly for sentencing.”
At the center of the case was the Holyland housing development, a hulking hilltop project that Jerusalem residents long suspected was tainted by corruption. The case broke in 2010 after Shmuel Dachner, a businessman who was involved in the project, turned state’s witness. Dachner died last year from an illness.
Judge David Rozen’s decision included reams of biting criticism, much of it reserved for Olmert.
He said the former prime minister enjoyed close ties with Dachner, despite his protestations to the contrary, and dismissed Olmert’s claims to the effect that the witness was unreliable. He said that in attempting to “besmirch” Dachner in his testimony, Olmert had lied to the court.
According to the decision, the state’s witness gave Olmert’s debt-ridden brother Yossi Olmert post-dated checks for NIS 500,000 ($143,000) at Olmert’s behest. Dachner was representing real estate developer Hillel Charney, who was convicted on Monday of money laundering and bribing Olmert, his then-assistant — and future Jerusalem mayor — Uri Lupolianski, and others.
Dachner “bought the services” of the mayor, who had no misgivings about breaking the law to help his cash-strapped brother, Rozen said. Olmert, he noted sardonically, considered the state’s witness a “magical treasure that stood at his disposal.”
Lupolianski, meanwhile, “was aware of the sizable ‘donations’ that were transferred and acted in contravention of proper standards,” he said.
“The broad canvas painted by the state’s witness revealed corrupt systems of government that had rotted over the years,” Rozen said in his decision. “Hundreds of thousands of shekels were transferred to elected and public officials.
“The state’s witness didn’t transfer the money out of the goodness of his heart, but rather with the intention that Olmert would help promote projects,” he added.
Entrepreneurs Avigdor Kelner and Meir Rabin were also convicted of giving bribes. Those convicted of taking bribes, in addition to Olmert and Lupolianski, were former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner; attorney Uri Messer; former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit; former deputy mayor and city councilman Eliezer Simhayof; Avraham Feiner, a former city councilman; and Olmert’s longtime aide and confidante, Shula Zaken.
Rozen declined a request filed last Thursday to extend the trial to admit new testimony by Zaken, who he said received illicit gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars from Dachner. He also rejected the plea bargain she reached last week with the prosecution, indicating that she could end up serving a longer prison sentence than the 11 months stipulated in her deal.
Zaken turned state’s witness a mere four days before the announcement of the verdict, and accused Olmert — in addition to allegations pertaining to the Holyland trial and other, already decided cases — of obstruction of justice and tampering with a witness.
Three of the defendants were cleared for lack of decisive evidence: former Israel Lands Authority director Yaakov Efrati and entrepreneurs Amnon Safran and Shimon Galon.
Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, after which he served as a cabinet minister, holding the trade and industry portfolio as well as several others, before becoming prime minister in 2006. He led the center-right Kadima party into government, but resigned from the premiership in September 2008 after police recommended that he be indicted in several graft cases.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said Olmert’s conviction offered some hope that the country was beginning to tackle a political culture tainted by corruption. “This is a sad day mixed with some hope for a cleaner future,” the group said in a statement. “This is a resounding wake-up call to those responsible for the fight against filth and corruption.”
Monday’s conviction was not Olmert’s first. The former prime minister was sentenced by the Jerusalem District Court in September 2012 to a suspended year-long jail term and a NIS 75,000 (some $19,000) fine, following his conviction for a breach-of-trust charge in the so-called Investment Center scandal. The state prosecution is also appealing his acquittal in the Rishon Tours affair, in which he was cleared of holding a travel slush fund, and in the Talansky affair, in which he was cleared of accepting undeclared contributions from American businessman Morris Talansky.
The appeal in the Rishon Tours case focuses on the interpretation of the evidence. The court, in clearing Olmert, cited the principle of reasonable doubt – the judges were not convinced that the evidence was sufficient to prove that the then-prime minister was aware of the double billing that was being committed by his staff.
Zaken, in her plea bargain, committed to provide testimony if and when required in the appeals related to these previous cases as well.
In conversations with state prosecutors several weeks ago, Zaken was said to have alleged that Olmert put money given to him by Talansky to private use — to buy suits, pens, cigars and overseas holidays — rather than using it as political campaign funds.
She also reportedly said Olmert knew all the details of the alleged double billing scheme for his various trips abroad, the so-called Rishon Tours affairs, under which more than one organization would sponsor the same trip, allegedly allowing the former prime minister to accrue funds which he used to finance family flights and upgrades to first class.
The state prosecution is expected to launch a new investigation of Olmert centered around Zaken’s allegations.
Times of Israel staff, AP and AFP contributed to this report.