Dozens remain detained in Yisrael Beytenu graft case

Deputy minister Faina Kirshenbaum sent home after seven-hour interrogation; daughter kept in custody

Former tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov in court on Wednesday, December 24, 2014 (FLASH90)

Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum was released by police late Wednesday night after a seven-hour interrogation, but her daughter remained in custody along with dozens of senior officials suspected of a raft of corruption charges.

Among those detained were the head of the Shomron Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, and the treasurer of the Binyamin Regional Council, Effy Peles. The two are accused of bribery and accepting unspecified benefits, and their remand was extended by six days and four days, respectively.

David Godovsky, the chief of staff for Kirshenbaum’s Yisrael Beytenu party, is suspected of several counts of bribery. His remand was extended by nine days.

The Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court extended the remand for Ranit Kirshenbaum, Faina Kirshenbaum’s daughter, until Sunday, on suspicion that she had accepted bribes along with her mother.

Police say they have state’s witnesses and incriminating evidence against some of the suspects. A senior police officer said that the massive bust had saved the state millions, since the illicit money transfers would have continued had the police not intervened.

Head of the Shomron Regional Council Gershon Mesika on February 7, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Earlier Wednesday, the court ordered former tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov to be remanded in police custody for eight days, hours after he was arrested in a sweep of some 30 suspects. Detectives from the Lahav 433 serious crimes and anti-corruption unit had swooped down on the homes and offices of the suspects early Wednesday morning.

Misezhnikov is a former Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker who served as minister from 2009 to 2013. Investigators are looking into suspicions that he fixed millions of shekels worth of government tenders for large public events to benefit personal acquaintances.

He is also suspected of receiving bribes in exchange for the transfer of funds to various organizations while serving as tourism minister.

Tamar Regional Council Chairman Dov Litvinoff, as well as Megilot Regional Council head Mordechai Dahamn, and the council’s director David Blau were also arrested.

Police extended the remand of Litvinoff, Dahamn and Blau by eight days as well, the Ynet news site reported. The three are suspected of bribing Kirshenbaum and others on several occasions in exchange for an increase in funding for their local councils.

Other suspects include the Israeli Handball Association Chairman Doron Samhi, who is suspected of bribery and conspiring to commit a crime, and the Israel Basketball Association’s former chairman, Avner Kopel, who is suspected of bribery, fraud and falsifying corporate documents.

The two were released to a 10-day house arrest period after being questioned by police.

Further arrests were expected on Thursday, police said.

Many of the suspects are members of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which rejected the case as a “witch hunt” aimed at impeding the party’s campaign ahead of the March 2015 election.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, a senior member of the party, was not informed of the probe by the Israel Police, which his ministry oversees.

The investigation was launched amid suspicions that the officials had “conspired in a calculated manner to advance their personal and public interests and to receive money for personal use, while committing various crimes in a manner that significantly impeded the administration of their areas of governance,” police said in a statement that announced the investigation on Wednesday.

Investigators suspect that large sums of money were inappropriately transferred 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 service officials in the form of cash payoffs and benefits.

Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum participates in a Knesset Finance Committee meeting, May 19, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

“The covert investigation revealed a calculated method wherein the suspects and their representatives unlawfully transferred, using their powers as public officials, large sums of public funds to [various] bodies and authorities, in exchange for large benefits for them or their associates, including appointments, payments and more,” the police statement said.

Kirshenbaum denied the allegations in an interview with Channel 2 Wednesday morning.

“I have no idea what’s going on, and I want to look into it,” she said. “I was told to come in for an interrogation and I will be questioned today. They said nothing to me. I have no idea why I’m being questioned, other than what I’m hearing in the media. I’m certain of my integrity.”

Israel Police’s anti-corruption unit, Lahav 433, in Lod (Photo credit: Flash90)

In a statement, Yisrael Beytenu said the arrests were part of a pre-election political witch hunt.

“As in every election since the establishment of Yisrael Beytenu in 1999, police haven’t forgone highly publicized arrests and investigations against members of the party,” the statement said. “If the investigation had been announced before the announcement of early elections or after them, one might have thought that there was a point to it, but the fact that it was done, again, during elections reveals more than anything else the intention of those who are behind the matter, which is meant to harm Yisrael Beytenu.

“We are confident in the innocence of the people, and that just as in previous occasions, once the media hullabaloo dies down, it will be established that there is nothing behind these publications other than the intention, destined to fail, to damage Yisrael Beytenu.”

Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino rejected Yisrael Beytenu’s accusations, denying that the investigation was politically motivated.

“The investigation has been going on for more than a year and the transition to an open investigation is a result of evaluating the status of the evidence and for solely professional reasons,” he said. “It was done in consultation with the attorney general and the state attorney and after all factors were considered, including the sensitive election period.”

read more: