Ex-judge backs away from appointment as chair of Comptroller’s Permits Committee

Sara Frish says office, rocked by turmoil over Netanyahu corruption investigation, has become a ‘ball on the political playing field’

Retired judge Sara Frish attends a Labor party meeting in the Knesset, July 4, 2011.  (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)   
Retired judge Sara Frish attends a Labor party meeting in the Knesset, July 4, 2011. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)   

Former judge Sara Frish on Monday revoked her acceptance of State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman’s offer to chair his office’s Permits Committee, which is set to reconsider prohibiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from funding his legal defense with outside money.

Frish’s withdrawal from the post may be linked to reports about accusations of nepotism and other irregularities in her past, revealed in a series of reports by Channel 13 over the past week.

“I agreed to the appointment based on the knowledge that the committee acts from a foundation of legal and ethical criteria,” Frish said, according to a report from the Ynet news site. “After much consideration I have come to the conclusion that the committee has become a ball on the political playing field. It is not my place.”

According to Channel 13, Frish appointed her son-in-law in 2004 to head a major project at the Shaarey Mishpat College in Hod Hasharon, which she helped found and was heading at the time. She was accused by some college officials of wasteful spending and favoritism. Frish has vehemently denied the accusations.

She was also dismissed from public committees in the transportation and education ministries in the late 1990s over claims she had failed to carry out her duties. She has denied those claims as well, and said the dismissals were due to political differences with then-Likud minister Meir Sheetrit, who was the minister who fired her in both ministries.

Matanyahu Englman at a press conference at the Knesset after his nomination to be the next state comptroller on June 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Three members of the Permits Committee resigned on August 8 amid a dispute over the committee’s demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu return hundreds of thousands of shekels he got from a cousin to fund his legal defense.

In June, the committee demanded Netanyahu give back some $300,000 to the cousin, US businessman Nathan Milikowsky. The order marked the third time Netanyahu’s request to be allowed to accept financial help for his legal defense was turned down.

The panel is charged with overseeing the financial dealings of senior public servants to ensure no conflicts of interest arise. In denying Netanyahu the financial help, it said it was inappropriate for non-Israeli benefactors — the committee also denied the premier’s request for financial help from American businessman Spencer Partrich — to pay for the prime minister’s legal defense in a criminal case relating to his alleged receipt of gifts from wealthy benefactors in Israel and abroad, the so-called Case 1000.

The committee’s work has now all but ground to a halt with the appointment of a new state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman, a candidate for the post backed by Netanyahu and elected by the Knesset coalition earlier this year.

Channel 13 reported this week on a meeting that took place late last month between Englman and the committee’s members, in which Englman lashed out at them over their demand that Netanyahu return money to Milikowsky, calling it an overstep of the committee’s authority.

The resignation by the three panel members, retired judge Ezra Kama and attorneys Nurit Israeli and Avigdor Ravid, is mostly an act of protest, as their two-year terms were due to end next month in any case.

Their replacements will be appointed by Englman.

Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco (Drew Altizer Photography)

The committee’s current chair, retired judge Shalom Brenner, has not resigned. His term is also set to end next month.

The Netanyahu saga has already claimed a previous committee chair, former judge Oni Habash, who resigned in March in protest over what he called “political pressure” being brought to bear on the committee over the Netanyahu question. He was replaced by Brenner, who was already a committee member.

The latest clash in the State Comptroller’s Office highlights what many observers and longtime officials in the agency are calling a dramatic shift in its function being led by Englman.

Haaretz reported last month that Englman plans to scale back the office’s probes into public corruption and focus on the post’s traditional and uncontroversial role as the polite internal critic of the state bureaucracy.

The new plans include closing the department in the comptroller’s office responsible for corruption investigations, as well as the introduction of positive feedback into reports on state bodies.

Englman, an accountant by training and former education executive who ran the prestigious Technion institute of technology and the state’s top university regulator, the Council for Higher Education, was sworn in to the job on July 1. He is the first comptroller in three decades who is not a former judge.

His appointment, passed by the Knesset in June with the backing of Netanyahu’s coalition, comes in the wake of two comptrollers, Micha Lindenstrauss and Yosef Shapira, who transformed the post into a key corruption watchdog — drawing praise from non-governmental watchdog groups, but also criticism from some politicians and officials for expanding the role of the office.

The State Comptroller’s Office, which is also the government’s office for public complaints, serves under the aegis of the Knesset and has authority to examine all agencies of government, even the most secretive. In part due to Lindenstrauss’s efforts, the agency has grown in recent years into a significant oversight body with hundreds of attorneys and accountants whose reports often lead to administrative and policy changes.

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