Former coalition whip MK David Bitan faced interrogators for a sixth round of questioning on Sunday, as police continued to probe suspicions he received hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes.
During his previous two interviews at the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 national fraud unit headquarters in Lod, Bitan, who stepped down as coalition whip after the probe became public, remained silent and refused to answer questions. He was last questioned at the beginning of the month.
Investigators now reportedly hold specific information on how the suspected bribes and money transfers were handled, after receiving testimony from furniture store owner Moshe Yosef, a key suspect in the case who is said to be in talks to turn state witness. Bitan was expected to be confronted with Yosef’s testimony during Sunday’s interrogation.
Whereas the initial suspicion was that Bitan had received most of the bribes while serving as deputy mayor of the coastal city of Rishon Lezion, Yosef’s testimony has indicated that payments continued after Bitan became a Knesset member in 2015, Haaretz reported on Thursday.
In a major development over the past three weeks Yosef gave detailed testimony, telling investigators that the bribes were frequent, including during the past five years, the report said. Yosef told investigators that he had delivered hundreds of thousands of shekels to Bitan during visits the Likud lawmaker made to Yosef’s Metzada furniture store in Rishon Lezion.
The money changed hands in a discreet corner of the shop, out of sight of the workers or shoppers, the report said. Some NIS 5,000-10,000 ($1,470-$2,940) was exchanged each time, sometimes more. The two men would huddle together and Yosef would surreptitiously slip the money into the MK’s pocket, the shop owner reportedly told police.
The money, Yosef reportedly said, came from various businessmen and contractors. He provided investigators with a list of 10 names involved in the matter and the testimony is likely to lead to more arrests, the report said.
Yosef is thought to have acted as the go-between for Bitan and the businesspeople, handing over money and keeping a percentage for himself, apparently as payment for large loans he gave to Bitan at a time when Bitan was heavily in debt. Police have dubbed him Bitan’s “banker.”
Yosef claims he wasn’t always aware of what Bitan was offering the businesspeople in return for the cash. He also described keeping careful track of what was going on and how much of Bitan’s debt was paid back. In the police raid on the Masada furniture shop, they found his bookkeeping notes, Haaretz reported.
Police intelligence information has indicated that some of those involved in the case may try and harm Yosef, and cops have installed surveillance cameras around his home as well as providing patrols in the area.
Another key suspect also said to be negotiating to become a state witness is real estate developer Dror Glazer, who has reportedly told investigators that he gave Bitan more than NIS 250,000 ($72,000). Police suspect that Glazer was acting on behalf of a third party who wanted to advance a real estate deal in Tel Aviv. According to the report, police have evidence that Bitan provided some benefit in return for the cash.
Among other things, Bitan reportedly is suspected of taking a bribe, as Knesset whip, in exchange for advancing Knesset legislation that would have benefited Glazer.
Investigators suspect that Bitan pushed for an amendment to the Planning and Building Law two months ago that would have benefited Dror Glazer, a real estate developer, Channel 10 news reported in December.
According to the report, Glazer is suspected of having transferred NIS 150,000 ($43,000) to Yosef in exchange for the former coalition chairman attempting to advance the legislation.
A third figure arrested in the case, whose identity was revealed earlier this month, is Ronen Ginzburg, the CEO of Danya Cebus, a construction company with numerous projects in Rishon Lezion.
Ginzburg is suspected of bribery, money laundering and tax evasion and of transferring NIS 300,000 ($87,000) to Bitan, via Yosef.
Police have over a year of recordings from phone conversations made by Yosef, including calls to Bitan, who has refused to comment on the calls, claiming they may have been obtained illegally. As an MK he is immune from phone tapping, which is only permitted on a member of parliament in special cases that do not apply to Bitan’s investigation.
The investigation, dubbed Case 1803 by police, has seen the arrests of a number of suspects, including Rishon Lezion’s mayor and other city officials, local businessmen, and organized crime figures.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.