A-G may decide Sunday whether to order probe into PM’s spending
TV report says investigation of alleged ‘low level’ criminal abuse of funds at PM’s residence ‘inescapable’, PM and wife may be called to testify
The attorney general may decide as soon as Sunday whether to order a police investigation into allegations of criminal abuse of funds at the Prime Minister’s Residence, and police are already gearing up to take evidence in the case, including possibly from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported Friday night.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is to convene a meeting with senior officials from the state proescution to consider the allegations, as detailed in a report earlier this week by the State Comptroller and in testimony from a former caretaker of the prime minister’s official residence. The disgruntled ex-caretaker, Menny Naftali, testified for a marathon 11 hours with the Israel Police overnight Thursday and into the early hours of Friday against Netanyahu after receiving limited immunity from prosecution.
The allegations amount to suspicions of “low level” criminality, the TV report said. Nonetheless, a formal police investigation of the Netanyahus “appears inescapable… if only to clear away the cloud of suspicion,” Channel 2 reported. “The police are preparing to take testimony,” it reported, “and it is not inconceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mrs. Netanyahu will be asked to give testimony.”
David Shimron, the Netanyahu family lawyer, said Friday that Naftali was not a credible witness, and added that the State Comptroller’s “minor” report did not contain allegations of criminal behavior. Shimron said the entire scandal was the work of “a very large campaign… by very large forces… designed to bring down” the prime minister. “Why was it so urgent” for the state comptroller to submit his report days before the elections?” Shimron asked in a Channel 2 interview, blaming “the media” and other powerful forces for the campaign against Netanyahu over alleged spending abuses.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on the same program that he hoped Netanyahu would emerge from the affair “as pure as the driven snow,” and that he hoped an investigation would not prove necessary.
The spending report released by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira Tuesday detailed lavish spending by Netanyahu and his wife at his official residence in Jerusalem as well as at their private home in Caesarea and alleged possible criminal misdeeds by the two.
Naftali provided recordings and documents detailing alleged financial abuse by the Netanyahus, but there was “nothing staggering” in his material. The material will be transferred to the state prosecution, and Weinstein will then decide whether to order a police investigation into the Netanyahus’ conduct. The timing of any such decision could be politically significant, given that Israel holds general elections on March 17.
On Thursday, Netanyahu hired top criminal lawyer Jacob Weinroth to defend him in any potential criminal investigation that could emerge from Naftali’s allegations, and from allegations of abuse of funds at the Prime Minister’s Residence detailed in the report earlier this week by the State Comptroller.
Netanyahu’s Likud party publicly blamed Naftali for much of the excessive spending at the Prime Minister’s Residence and at the Netanyahus’ home in Caesaria that was detailed in the comptroller’s report. Infuriated, Naftali, who was already involved in legal proceedings against the Netanyahus, returned to the police and offered further testimony.
The spending allegations initially did not seem likely to harm Netanyahu’s chances of winning reelection on March 17, with polls showing that the affair had little impact on voters’ intentions. But the opening of a criminal investigation into Netanyahu’s spending could prove more significant.
Naftali testified to Efraim Bracha, head of the fraud unit at the Israel Police, until 5 a.m. on Friday morning. Naftali’s attorney, Ofer Almog, said that his client’s evidence was “bizarre and needs to be examined. “I am in shock that, until now, it’s never been investigated,” Almog was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying.
According to Channel 2, Netanyahu began “preparing for a criminal investigation,” following the announcement Thursday that Naftali would receive immunity from prosecution.
The Channel 2 report added that the attorney general’s office was examining details beyond what was written in the State Comptroller report, published on Tuesday, on excessive spending by the prime minister and his wife. According to suspicions cited in the TV report, the Netanyahus systematically used state funds to finance private expenses.
Channel 2 and other Hebrew media reports suggested that the granting of immunity to Naftali indicated that the affair was taking on greater significance. Haaretz quoted unnamed Likud sources saying they were “preparing for the possibility” that Netanyahu would be investigated.
Weinroth defended the late prime minister Ariel Sharon in the late 1990s when, as foreign minister, Sharon faced allegations of fraud, bribery and obstruction of justice. In 2007, Weinroth also represented former finance minister Avraham Hirschson, who would go on to serve a prison term for embezzlement of public funds.
Naftali testified voluntarily to the police 433 fraud unit two weeks ago and recounted some of the details that appeared in the State Comptroller report. After telling investigators about the financial irregularities for some 90 minutes, Naftali asked for immunity, saying that further testimony would reveal incidents that could implicate him.
Investigators from the fraud unit decided to stop Naftali’s testimony at that point and turn to Attorney General Weinstein to approve the request. The attorney general’s office examined the two-week-old testimony by Naftali and decided to grant him the immunity.
Naftali served as caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence for nearly two years. He resigned after he wasn’t given the tenure that, he claimed, was promised him.
He has filed suit against the Prime Minister’s Office; the deputy director general of operations at the office, Ezra Saidoff; the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu; and Netanyahu himself.
Naftali seeks NIS 1.1 million ($286,000) in damages. He also separately sued Netanyahu for libel following an interview where Netanyahu said Naftali had been fired, even though he claims to have resigned.
Naftali recently asked the Jerusalem Labor Court to summon Sara Netanyahu to testify, and she is set to appear at the court after the March 17 elections.
News of Naftali’s immunity deal came after he announced another libel suit against Netanayahu earlier Thursday, this time for a barrage of accusations against him following the publication of the State Comptroller’s report.
The Likud headquarters tried earlier this week to deflect blame for apparent financial impropriety at the Prime Minister’s Residence by blaming Naftali for inflated expenses during the time he served as caretaker.
On the basis of the State Comptroller’s report, the Netanyahus could face criminal charges over the accusation that Sara Netanyahu pocketed some NIS 4,000 ($1,035) of bottle refunds for recycling. Accusations that she purchased a set of patio furniture identical to the patio furniture at the official residence, which was subsequently delivered to the Netanyahu’s private residence, could also get them into trouble.
A third alleged scandal, over a scheme to overpay electrician Avi Pachima — an apparent Likud apparatchik — by inviting him to do work on weekends and holidays and a subsequent cover-up, may also result in criminal charges.