Comptroller committee rejects PM’s request to accept legal funds for trial

Oversight body accepts opinion of attorney general that NIS 10 million donation from US billionaire, also a witness in corruption case, could be considered illicit gift

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

The Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office said Thursday that it will not consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to receive funds from a foreign benefactor to pay for the legal defense in his corruption trial.

Netanyahu had asked the oversight committee to allow an NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) donation from Spencer Partrich, a Michigan-based real estate magnate. Because Partrich also happens to be a witness in one of the cases, the committee had asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for his opinion on the matter.

On Tuesday, Mandelblit told the committee he opposed Netanyahu’s request, saying the donation was tantamount to an illicit gift.

In a letter sent to Netanyahu’s attorneys Thursday, committee secretary Eden Bizman said that “given that the attorney general has ruled that the prime minister should not receive funding for his legal defense from Mr. Spencer Partrich, as a witness in the indictment, [given] the amount requested, and considering the nature of the relationship between the prime minister and Mr. Partrich, the request does not meet the rules for receiving a gift in accordance with the Gift Law.”

Spencer Partrich (Courtesy)

The committee also said it will not renew discussions on a retroactive request for Netanyahu to receive some $300,000 in funds for legal fees from his cousin Nathan Milikowski.

Since the request was previously rejected by the committee, Netanyahu will have to pay back the funds to Milikowski.

Last year, the Permits Committee declined his request for the NIS 10 million from Partrich, saying it was inappropriate given the fact that he is facing charges relating to gifts he received from oversees financiers. The committee said its decision was final.

But when a new committee was formed under Netanyahu’s hand-picked state comptroller, it took up the request again, citing “a significant change in circumstances” that arose following Netanyahu’s indictment in January, according to the committee documents. It has since been awaiting the attorney general’s opinion, and on Thursday, having received it, declined the premier’s request once again.

Netanyahu on Tuesday night launched a scathing, unprecedented attack against Mandelblit — whom he himself appointed and who served previously as his chief of staff — accusing him of being part of a deep-state conspiracy scheme aiming to oust him for political reasons.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Menahem Kahana, Pool)

Netanyahu was slammed by his rivals over the accusations, which he made in a series of tweets and retweets, and a watchdog said it would file a police complaint for incitement.

“Mandelblit’s scheme to topple the leadership is exposed in all its ugliness,” Netanyahu tweeted. “Mandelblit is trying to reverse the democratic decision of millions of citizens who chose Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.”

Netanyahu’s trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes opened last month in a Jerusalem court. The accusations include accepting some $200,000 in gifts such as cigars and champagne from two billionaires, Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement before entering a courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020, for the start of his corruption trial. Among those alongside him from left are Likud MKs and ministers Gadi Yevarkan, Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, Nir Barkat, Israel Katz, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yoav Gallant and David Amsalem (Yonathan SINDEL / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu is also accused of offering to push legislation benefiting powerful Israeli media moguls in exchange for more positive coverage in their publications. Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy and called the allegations baseless, saying accepting gifts from friends isn’t a problem.

Netanyahu is widely believed to be a multimillionaire, thanks to best-selling books, real estate holdings and lucrative speaking fees while in the private sector.

Netanyahu has for decades socialized with the ultra-wealthy and his supporters say he has given up opportunities to amass great wealth to serve the country instead. But he and his wife have gained a reputation for enjoying the good life, repeatedly landing in hot water for misappropriating state funds.

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