A Rishon Lezion court ordered former tourism minister Staz Mizhenikov to remain in police custody for eight days Wednesday, hours after he was arrested amid a sweep of some 30 suspects, including senior government officials, suspected of a raft of corruption charges.
Among the 30 suspects, most of whom were tied to the Yisrael Beytenu party, were Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum, a ministry director and a host of senior public officials.
Misezhnikov, a former Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker, served as minister from 2009 to 2013 and 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.
Detectives from the Lahav 433 serious crimes and anti-corruption unit swooped down on the homes and offices of multiple public officials early Wednesday amid suspicions of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate documents and money laundering.
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, according to Ynet. The three are suspected of bribing Kirshenbaum and others on several occasions in exchange for an increase in funding for their local councils.
Kirshenbaum, who denied taking any part in the scandal, was released to her home late Wednesday after hours in police interrogation.
Other suspects include the Chairman of the Israeli Handball Association 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.
Arrests are expected to continue on Thursday as well.
The police allegations implicated 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 Aharonovitch, a senior member of the party, was not informed of the probe by 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.
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.
“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.”
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.”