Appealing acquittal, state says Olmert got away with fraud

Former PM was cleared of 2 corruption charges in September; state seeks to overturn ruling, add harsher sentence on sole conviction

Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 2, 2013. (photo credit: Gili Yohanan/Flash90)
Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 2, 2013. (photo credit: Gili Yohanan/Flash90)

Almost a year after former prime minister Ehud Olmert beat charges of corruption in two separate cases, the state prosecution appealed the decision, telling the Supreme Court that the acquittals sent a message that inappropriate conduct is allowed.

The State Attorney’s Office began presenting arguments Tuesday to overturn the acquittals and exact a more severe sentence in the one case in which the former prime minister was convicted.

A specially convened five-judge panel of the Supreme Court, under president Asher Grunis, is to continue the appeal hearing on Thursday.

In September, Olmert was sentenced by the Jerusalem District Court to a suspended year-long jail term and a NIS 75,000 (some $19,000) fine, following his landmark conviction for a breach-of-trust charge in the so-called Investment Center scandal, but was cleared in two other allegations: the Rishon Tours affair, in which he was accused of holding a travel slush fund; and another count of accepting undeclared contributions from American businessman Morris Talansky.

Lead prosecutor Naomi Granot said Tuesday in her opening arguments that the former prime minister’s acquittal shows the public that “inappropriate conduct such as that of Olmert is forgiven, and even allowed.”

“We are talking about an elected official, a senior minister in Israel, who receives significant amounts of cash, holds it and manages it… with no record, either for receipt or spending,” she said, and questioned whether receiving funds in this manner was considered legitimate in the eyes of Israel’s court system. “Is this not sufficient for the crime of fraud and breach of trust?” she asked.

Granot was referring to the Talansky case, in which Olmert stood accused of unlawfully accepting large sums of money, often in “cash-stuffed envelopes,” from American-Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, over a period of some 15 years. In its appeal, the prosecution alleged to the Supreme Court that the lower court had made a “critical error” in its definition of what constituted breach of trust on the part of a cabinet minister.

The appeal in the Rishon Tours case focused 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, involving sums of up to $100,000, that was being committed by his staff.

In the Supreme Court, Granot argued that the lower court was “unreasonable” in its finding.

Granot said that during the period in question, Olmert did not “pay a single shekel” out of his own pocket for his travels. “There is no possibility that Olmert did not know about the fraud or at least was not suspicious of it,” she said.

Olmert’s long-time office manager Shula Zaken was sentenced to a nine-month suspended term and given an NIS 40,000 fine for fraud and breach of trust in Rishon Tours case, and the state appeal asked that she receive a harsher sentence for her actions.

There have been persistent rumors of a possible political comeback by Olmert, who stepped down as prime minister in 2008. The state appeal would not preclude a political comeback; however, as long as his name isn’t cleared, it could legally prevent Olmert from serving as a minister — or, for that matter, as prime minister.

Further complicating Olmert’s potential comeback from a legal position is the fact that he is still on trial for allegedly taking bribes in the Holyland real estate scandal, when he served as mayor of Jerusalem. Precedent indicates that a politician under indictment cannot serve as a minister.

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