Likud MK Bitan grilled for 7th time in bribery probe

Former coalition whip questioned at police anti-fraud unit office for 4 hours; continues his refusal to cooperate with interrogators

Likud MK David Bitan attends a committee meeting at the Knesset on February 5, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud MK David Bitan attends a committee meeting at the Knesset on February 5, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former coalition whip David Bitan was interrogated for the seventh time on Sunday at the Lod headquarters of Israel Police’s Lahav 433 national fraud unit in an investigation into suspected corruption in the Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv municipalities.

The Likud lawmaker, who stepped down as coalition whip after the probe became public but is still a Knesset member, is suspected of receiving hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, both while serving as deputy mayor of the coastal city of Rishon Lezion and as a member of parliament.

He remained silent in three previous rounds of questioning, and on Sunday vowed he would again refuse to answer questions.

While walking to his car on Sunday morning, Bitan was asked by Channel 10 if he would keep silent and answered “yes.” When asked whether he would cooperate with his interrogators, he replied “no,” according to footage from the TV station.

Bitan’s questioning ended after about four hours, during which he carried out his intention and kept silent once again, Hebrew-language media reported. The reason for his silence, according to Hadashot, was that his demand to confront the two main witnesses incriminating him, Moshe Yosef and Dror Glazer, was declined.

Investigators reportedly hold specific information on how the suspected bribes and money transfers were handled, after they received 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 confronted with Yosef’s testimony during his last interrogation on January 28.

Last week, police began confronting Yosef, a close associate of Bitan’s, with other suspects in the case such as Tel Aviv deputy mayor Arnon Giladi, who was arrested earlier this month in the case, dubbed by police as Case 1803.

The headquarters of the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in Lod. (Flash90)

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 last month.

In a major development over the past month, 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 referred to him as Bitan’s “banker.”

Metzada furniture store in Rishon Lezion, suspected of being used to launder money on behalf of MK David Bitan. (Screen capture: Google Maps)

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 coalition 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 the 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.

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 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.

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