In a rare move, a Jerusalem judge on Thursday rejected a plea deal for former chief rabbi Yona Metzger, handing down a harsher sentence of four and a half years in prison on a slew of bribery and corruption charges.
District Court Judge Moshe Yo’ad Hacohen told Metzger that if the plea deal had not been signed with the prosecution, he would have sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment, according to court documents.
Metzger pleaded guilty on January 30 to a raft of corruption charges involving some NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), based on a plea deal that recommended he be jailed for three and a half years.
Metzger confessed to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes. In addition to a prison term, the court will decide how long Metzger will be on probation and will foreclose on an apartment in his name in central Tel Aviv. He was also to pay NIS 5 million ($1.3 million) in fines, a court spokesperson said last month.
Tacking on the extra year to his sentence, Hacohen accused Metzger of running a “corrupt business venture” and undermining the public trust. He noted in the sentence that while courts generally uphold plea bargain arrangements, the facts of the case — which saw the corruption extend over a period of several years — and Metzger’s senior public position left him no choice but to make the final sentence more severe.
The court documents said Metzger would begin to serve out his sentence at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle on May 3, 2017, at 9 a.m.
The plea deal had come after months of negotiations between Metzger’s attorneys and senior officials in the State Attorney’s Office.
Metzger was accused in March 2016 of accepting some NIS 10 million in bribes through various nonprofit groups, and keeping about NIS 7 million ($1.8 million) of it for himself.
He stepped down as chief rabbi on July 24, 2013, due to the fraud investigation against him, just before the conclusion of his 10-year term in office.
Police said Metzger had stashed about $200,000 with his sister in Haifa, and a search of his home turned up NIS 40,000 (over $11,300 at the time) in cash hidden in various books. Metzger initially contended that the money in Haifa came from an inheritance, but the investigation found that claim to be untrue.
According to the indictment, various nonprofit organizations connected with the rabbi during his term in office received millions of shekels in donations, some of which Metzger allegedly took for his personal use.
In addition to profiting from donations to charitable causes, he was also accused of taking bribes meant to sway his opinion on matters he attended to as chief rabbi.
Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, or of European Jewish heritage, and one Sephardi, hailing from Jewish communities of the Muslim world. Their responsibilities include running the rabbinical courts and regulating the kosher food supervision industry.
Metzger was voted into the prestigious position in 2003 with the support of the senior ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities at the time.
In 2005, he was questioned on suspicion of receiving benefits from a hotel in Jerusalem in return for favors, and police recommended he be tried for fraud and breach of trust.
But the attorney general at the time, fearing an unsuccessful prosecution, decided against indicting him. Instead, he wrote a scathing report about Metzger, accusing him of lying to police and recommending that he resign immediately.
JTA contributed to this report.