Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has criticized as “unfortunate” a Knesset committee’s decision to grant Likud MK Haim Katz immunity, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.
The Knesset House Committee on Tuesday voted to grant Likud MK Haim Katz parliamentary immunity from a criminal probe into charges of fraud and breach of trust.
The former welfare minister is facing the charges for allegedly advancing a bill on corporate bond repayment pushed by a financial consultant who was also his close friend and financial adviser, and which benefited Katz financially once it became law. Katz is also accused of concealing those conflicts of interest.
The House Committee voted three separate times on three separate requests filed by Katz for immunity, each on different grounds. One of the requests, in which Katz alleged that prosecutors were acting in “bad faith,” was soundly rejected by his colleagues in a 16-4 vote. But the committee accepted the final request — which argued he had already faced censure by the Knesset Ethics Committee and that no public good was served by his prosecution — and voted to grant immunity by a vote of 16 to 10.
The final vote was broadly along partisan lines — representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina either sided with Katz or abstained; those of Blue and White, Labor-Gesher, Democratic Camp and the Arab Joint List either voted against immunity or abstained.
“They made a decision, an unfortunate event but okay,” Mandelblit told the Kan public broadcaster after the panel’s vote.
The immunity request now goes to the Knesset plenary for a final vote by all 120 Knesset members.
During the discussions, Katz told fellow MKs that “my life has been ruined” by what he said were unfounded allegations against him. “I’m only flesh and blood,” he said, “and I am not a liar.”
Arguing that the indictment amounted to law enforcement attempting to interfere with the inner workings of the Knesset, Katz’s attorney Navit Negev appealed to Knesset members in the House Committee meeting on Tuesday to grant their colleague the immunity he requested.
“We claim that the indictment [arguing Katz’s actions amounted to corruption] was in fact based on a different rule from the Knesset rules. This is the basis of the confusion. In fact, this is an interference in the work of the Knesset,” Negev said, insisting that Katz did not violate the Knesset’s own conflict of interest rules.
Immediately after the vote, Katz, who had to be removed repeatedly from the meeting for interrupting Mandelblit as he lay out the case for indictiment, expressed relief and apologized to his colleagues.
“I apologize that you’ve had to spend so many hours here because of me,” he told the committee. “My apologies. I’ve learned my lesson. Thank you very much.”
The committee vote drew a rebuke from anti-corruption group Movement for Quality Government, which promised to appeal the decision to the High Court of Justice.
On Thursday, at the first House Committee debate on Katz’s immunity request, Mandelblit said that by not publicizing his personal ties — including financial ones — to the legislation he was advancing at the behest of his own financial adviser, and which would benefit that adviser’s other clients, Katz had “committed wrongful acts that amount to a criminal offense.”
The indictment centers on allegations that Katz, while serving as chairman of the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013, advanced Amendment 44 to the Securities Law at businessman Mordechai Ben Ari’s request. The law stipulates that companies must repay bond debt to small bond holders before it repays controlling owners — an attempt to buck the influence of wealthy and powerful investors in order to help protect the interests of small investors. Ben Ari’s business represents groups of such small bond holders in several companies.
Mandelblit told MKs last week that Katz earned large sums of money by investing according to Ben Ari’s advice and even through Ben Ari himself. The attorney general argued that that relationship created a significant conflict of interest in Katz’s advancing an amendment directly related to those investments, even if no money changed hands between them directly.
After Mandelblit’s August decision to indict Katz, the then-welfare minister resigned from the government following a practice established in the 1990s with the court-upheld resignations of indicted cabinet members Aryeh Deri and Raphael Pinhasi.
Negev argued on Tuesday that the indictment represents “a lack of understanding or reference to the norms required by Knesset members.
“The rules of conflict [of interest] that apply to Knesset members are completely different from those that apply to [unelected] public servants. The norms that Katz is said to have broken do not exist in reality and have no legal and normative basis,” she said.
Katz has denied wrongdoing, defending his work on Amendment 44 as key to protecting small investors.