Police are reportedly investigating coalition chairman MK David Bitan of Likud, a powerful ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on suspicion of bribe-taking before he entered the Knesset.
Over the past few months, the National Fraud Investigation Unit has been gathering evidence of wrongdoing by Bitan during his tenure as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion from 2005 to 2015, the daily Haaretz reported Tuesday.
Bitan rejected the report and said his “hands are clean.”
A police spokeswoman would not confirm or deny the newspaper report.
Between 2008 and 2010 and again in 2013, Bitan headed the city’s local planning and building committee. At the same time he reportedly ran up huge debts with loans taken on the gray market, telling friends that he owed more than NIS 7 million ($2 million). Part of his salary was frozen and legal proceedings were instituted against him, the report said.
In a report a year ago in the financial daily The Marker, a Rishon Lezion city official said that Bitan went underground for a while to escape his creditors.
“One day, two thugs came into the office and with one glance you could see what type of people they were,” the official said. “They immediately start yelling, ‘Where is David Bitan?’ I said to them, ‘Listen, I’m searching for him just as much as you are.'”
It remains unclear how Bitan eventually managed to pay off his debts. In 2010 he was forced to step down from the building committee after a criminal investigation was launched against him. Ultimately, the Central District attorney’s office decided to close the case.
Among the suspicions currently being investigated by police are that developers gave Bitan money to cover his loans in exchange for favorable decisions from the building and planning committee, Tuesday’s report said.
Bitan, a longtime Likud activist, was appointed coalition chair shortly after entering the Knesset in the 2015 election. Despite being a freshman lawmaker, he quickly made a name for himself as a tough coalition chair — Israel’s equivalent of a party whip — gaining the nickname “the bulldozer” for his belligerent enforcement of the government’s legislative agenda. He is considered one of Netanyahu’s closest allies and supporters, and has recently been promoting a bill that would grant immunity from prosecution to serving prime ministers.
Bitan said the report on the investigation was “not coincidental” and was “an attempt to weaken” him.
“The despicable witch hunt by Haaretz against people on the right and against anyone who does not fit its agenda broke new records this morning,” he said in a statement. “The gap between the questions that I was sent and the recycled information that was published speaks for itself. For a long time the paper has recycled old stories that were investigated by law enforcement agencies and closed. For 28 years I served as a member of the municipality and I made thousands of decisions, both for and against people. This is part of public service. This attempt to intimidate me won’t work. My hands are clean.”
The investigation was authorized by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Attorney Shai Nitzan, the report said.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was not informed of the probe by police, his spokesperson told The Times of Israel. Law enforcement is only required to tell the speaker in case of a full criminal investigation.