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High Court reinstates judge in Bezeq probe texting scandal

Judges partially accept Ronit Poznansky-Katz’s appeal against disciplinary panel’s ruling, saying she can resume her post in March but won’t hear criminal cases for 2 years

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz leaves the Supreme Court in Jerusalem after appearing before the justices as part of the disciplinary process against her, March 21, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz leaves the Supreme Court in Jerusalem after appearing before the justices as part of the disciplinary process against her, March 21, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A judge who held ethically “inappropriate” communications with a state prosecutor in a corruption probe involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be dismissed, the High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday, overturning a previous decision by a judiciary disciplinary panel.

Ronit Poznansky-Katz was dismissed in July as a Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court judge, following a hearing by the panel. She had been suspended since April after it emerged that she had coordinated remand rulings for suspects with Israel Securities Authority attorney Eran Shacham-Shavit in a series of text messages.

The suspects had been arrested as part of an investigation into suspicions that Bezeq ownership had received regulatory favors from the Communications Ministry in exchange for positive media coverage of Netanyahu. Police have recommended that Netanyahu, who held the Communications Ministry portfolio at the time, be charged with bribe-taking and other offenses.

Poznansky-Katz appealed in September to the High Court of Justice against the decision to dismiss her indefinitely, claiming that her punishment wasn’t proportional to the offense.

High Court judges Uzi Vogelman, Dafna Barak-Erez and Noam Solberg partially accepted Poznansky-Katz’s appeal, ruling that she can return to work in March, but will be banned from hearing criminal cases for two years.

They also said that Poznansky-Katz will recieve an official reprimand.

The High Court of Justice convenes for a hearing on the Regulation Law at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on June 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Vogelman supported upholding her punishment, the two other judges thought it should be canceled.

The judges said they agree that the disciplinary panel judges had been right to say the affair had “seriously harmed public trust in the justice system,” but ruled the body lacked the authority to dismiss Poznansky-Katz.

The disciplinary committee, headed by former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis, along with Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel and the head of the Nazareth District Court, had voted unanimously to dismiss the judge.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut set up the special disciplinary tribunal after the justice minister filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against the judge in March.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on January 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Obtained by Channel 10 news in February, the text messages between Poznansky-Katz and attorney Shacham-Shavit sparked accusations that state officials were obstructing justice and that the suspects would not receive a fair trial.

In the exchange, Shacham-Shavit told Poznansky-Katz that the Securities Authority intended to ask that some of the suspects in the probe be released, while others remain in custody.

“Try and act surprised,” he wrote.

“I’m practicing my surprised face,” she responded.

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz (L) and the Israel Securities Authority’s legal adviser, Eran Shacham-Shavit (R)

A full transcript of the messages released several days later appeared to be less damning than the initial report, showing that Poznansky-Katz and Shacham-Shavit were mainly discussing case logistics.

Judge Eliezer Rivlin, the ombudsman handling complaints against judges, ruled in March that there would be no criminal proceedings against Poznansky-Katz, but recommended that she face a disciplinary hearing over the “highly inappropriate” exchange.

“During the months of June, July, December 2017, January and February 2018, Shacham-Shavit addressed the judge directly several times regarding the cases he was dealing with,” Rivlin wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The Bezeq corruption investigation, dubbed Case 4000, involves suspicions that Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch ordered the Walla news site, which he also owns, to grant positive coverage to Netanyahu and his family exchange for regulatory favors benefiting his business.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is reviewing the evidence in that case and two others to decide whether to indict the prime minister.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all cases.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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