Investigators pursuing a major fraud case involving key members of the Yisrael Beytenu party have been looking into allegations that Michael Falkov, a former media adviser to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, was involved in a large money laundering racket. The story was cleared for publication Tuesday.
Falkov went missing nearly six months ago during a trip to Ukraine, raising fears he had been murdered. However, suspicions have surfaced that Falkov faked his death, Hebrew-language reports said.
In recent days, police launched an extensive search for Falkov, Israel Radio reported.
Falkov was one of the owners of the IzRus Russian-language website, an influential news source among Israel’s Russian-speaking community. Another of the site’s owners, Alexander Goldstein, was arrested two weeks ago over suspicions he had struck a deal with Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beytenu), under which he would publish favorable reports regarding the party in exchange for a business fee. Kirshenbaum has been named as a key suspect in the investigation.
Goldstein has since been released to house arrest, the Walla news site reported.
Falkov immigrated to Israel in the early nineties, and reportedly worked for the Shin Bet internal security agency upon his arrival. He later turned to journalism and was employed as a senior reporter at Novosti Nedeli, a Russian-language weekly published in Israel.
After leaving the paper in 2003, Falkov served as a media adviser to Liberman. He later served as an editor for the Likud party’s Russian-language website.
In August, reports surfaced on independent Russian media claiming that following a battle between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in Pervomaisk, an Israeli passport was discovered upon the charred corpse of a member of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion Donbass. The deceased person appeared to have been tortured to death, and the passport belonged to Falkov, according to the unverified reports.
In a separate development Tuesday, Yesh Atid party MK Boaz Toporovsky was summoned by police to offer testimony regarding the Yisrael Beytenu corruption case. Yesh Atid promptly released a statement declaring that Toporovsky had no connection with the scandal and that police had requested his assistance on information about an event organized by the Tourism Ministry in 2010, when Toporovsky served as chairman of Israel’s Student Union. Former tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov, formerly of Yisrael Beytenu, was among several dozen people arrested and interrogated by detectives from the Lahav 443 anti-corruption unit in connection with the case late last month.
Investigators are looking at the possibility that Yisrael Beytenu members paid fictitious wages and funds to various non-government organizations as well as individual people as part of a large kickback scheme.
Liberman, who serves as foreign minister, has not been implicated in any of the allegations.
Party leaders including Liberman have characterized the probe as a witch hunt timed to coincide with pre-election campaigning.
Investigators suspect cash was inappropriately transferred from politicians to non-government organizations and various other groups. In return, the organizations allegedly made nepotistic appointments, as well as circulating some of the money back to public officials in the form of cash payoffs and benefits.
Many of the suspects in the affair are high-level members of Liberman’s party, including Kirshenbaum, who is a key suspect in the case along with her daughter Ranit.
Thirty-two people have been arrested in the case to date, and 103 questioned. The scandal revolves around no fewer than 16 major cases, Channel 2 reported on Friday, adding that Kirshenbaum was linked to nine or 10 of them.
Last week Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein sent a personal letter to Kirshenbaum telling her to stay away from the Interior Ministry as her presence could compromise the investigation.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.