Attorney general said to reject Sara Netanyahu plea deal in expenses case

Attorney general said to reject Sara Netanyahu plea deal in expenses case

Prosecutors reportedly demanding an admission of criminal guilt, but Netanyahu’s attorneys offered only a return of most of the money that was allegedly misused

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prosecutors rejected a plea deal with Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces fraud charges over alleged misuse of $100,000 in state funds, according to a television report on Sunday.

Netanyahu’s lawyers offered a deal that would see Sara Netanyahu avoid any admission of guilt, return most of the allegedly purloined funds, and see a freeze of any legal proceedings due to “personal circumstances,” Channel 10 reported.

But on the order of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, prosecutors have rejected the offer, it was reported Sunday, demanding an admission of criminal guilt in at least some of the charges in the case.

Plea deal talks between Netanyahu’s lawyers and state prosecutors have been ongoing for the past two weeks, but the sides are said to be far apart.

Sara Netanyahu was indicted on June 21, along with Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

The two are accused of fraudulently charging some NIS 359,000 ($100,000) in gourmet meals to the state’s expense between 2010 and 2013, violating expenditure laws that ban the ordering of prepared food when a chef is already employed at the official residence.

According to the indictment, Netanyahu also attempted to hide the misuse of the funds, falsely claiming there was no cook at the time in the Jerusalem home in order to justify purchasing meals from restaurants.

Ezra Saidoff, deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem on May 10, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The charges against Saidoff are more serious, as he is also accused of illicitly hiring chefs and servers for private meals at the Netanyahu home and falsifying invoices for such activities in order to get them approved.

The indictment also covers the employment of an electrician, whose hiring had originally been scrapped by the PMO due to the man’s close connection to the Netanyahu family. Saidoff is accused of falsifying documents that were used to circumvent the PMO’s original order that the electrician’s hiring be annulled.

Yehoshua Reznik, a lawyer for Saidoff, said shortly after the indictment that the charges were “fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with the legal and factual situation as shown by the evidence in the case.”

Netanyahu’s attorneys have argued for the past two months that the regulations governing expenditure in the Prime Minister’s Residence, which were violated by Netanyahu, have no legal standing because they had not been approved by any authorized organ of government.

“The most absurd thing in the indictment stems from the fact that it is based on illegal regulations, and even the person who wrote the regulations admits that they are illegal,” Netanyahu’s lawyers said in an official statement following the June 21 indictment. “The regulations covering food were written on the fly by three officials who were not authorized to do so.”

The lawyers claimed that the Knesset Finance Committee, which is the only body authorized to determine which of the prime minister’s expenses are covered by the state, never approved the regulations that underpin the indictment. On the contrary, they said, the committee had ruled that all the expenses of the prime minister and his family should be paid for by the state, similar to the policy in the president’s official residence.

The lawyers argued that it was unheard of anywhere in the world for a prime minister’s wife to be charged for something as trivial as food expenses.

“There was no fraud and no breach of trust or accepting bribes or any crime at all,” they added. “The prime minister’s wife, who is not a public servant, does not know the regulations, and passed a polygraph test when she was asked about this. Not only is the indictment based on false claims,” they said, “it is based entirely on invalid and illegal regulations that apply specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to him alone.”

The charges came after Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu family aide turned state’s witness, provided testimony to prosecutors regarding Sara Netanyahu’s alleged misappropriation of public funds for personal use.

The decision to launch the investigation into Sara Netanyahu came in light of the state prosecutor’s recommendation, after allegations were raised in a 2015 report by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira that detailed lavish spending at the official residence in Jerusalem, as well as at the Netanyahus’ private Caesarea home.

Under PMO regulations, cooks at the Prime Minister’s Residence are supposed to supply prime ministers and their immediate families with daily meals. Where cooks are not employed, the PM’s family is permitted to order external meals at the state’s expense, up to a maximum cost of NIS 200 ($57) per person plus VAT. The state is also authorized to foot the bill for private guests of the prime minister and his or her spouse so long as it is not a social or family event involving more than 20 people.

Mandelblit and Nitzan had notified the prime minister’s wife of their intention to file charges several months ago.

Negotiations for her to return a portion of the diverted money and confess to the charges in exchange for avoiding prosecution broke down when the prime minister’s wife reportedly refused to pay the sums requested by prosecutors, telling her lawyers she’d rather go to jail than reimburse the state. Her lawyers have denied such reports.

A draft indictment, which was leaked last year, detailed allegedly illegal spending of up to NIS 25,000 (some $7,000) per month by the prime minister’s wife on meals from top restaurants in Jerusalem. It detailed 15 cases in which Sara Netanyahu ordered food from outside chefs including Shalom Kadosh and Lior Hafzadi.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara, second right, host US president Donald Trump, left, and his wife Melania at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

In addition to the fraud case, Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu have been questioned as part of the Bezeq telecommunications giant graft probe. The case involves suspicions Prime Minister Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.

Police have also recommended the prime minister himself stand trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other cases. The attorney general has yet to decide whether to press charges against the prime minister.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The premier denies any wrongdoing.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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