Mobster arrested, Tel Aviv city official grilled in coalition whip graft case

MK David Bitan was reportedly NIS 16 million in debt, is suspected of repaying the money via illicit deals

Likud MK and coalition chairman David Bitan on December 4, 2017, after police questioning as part of a corruption investigation. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Likud MK and coalition chairman David Bitan on December 4, 2017, after police questioning as part of a corruption investigation. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Police detained four people for questioning Monday morning, including a senior official at the Tel Aviv municipality, in connection with alleged bribery and money laundering involving coalition chairman MK David Bitan.

Bitan is reportedly suspected of having received a bribe from a crime figure in return for swaying a real estate tender in his favor. On Monday, police announced that they had arrested Hossam Jarushi, a senior member in a crime organization, in connection with the case.

The developments came a day after 17 Rishon Lezion city officials were arrested or questioned as part of the widening corruption probe, known as Case 1803. Among those scooped up by police after a long investigation were Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur, two parliamentary aides, contractors and businesspeople.

Jarushi is reportedly a member of a known crime family based in the Ramle area of central Israel.

Specifically, investigators suspect that Jarushi covered Bitan’s debts in return for receiving the contract to carry out the earthworks for the so-called “Mit’ham 1000” real estate project, a 1,000 dunam (250 acre) development project that is also tied to Bitan. According to Haaretz, police also suspect Jarushi gave other financial assistance to Bitan.

Hadashot TV news reported that Bitan, when serving as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, accrued debts of some NIS 16 million ($4.6 million), leading to restrictions on his bank account. Bitan, who served in the post between 2005 and 2015, is suspected of paying back the money within two years through crooked deals. He is also suspected of receiving gifts and bribes after becoming a member of Knesset in 2015, the report said.

On Sunday the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court extended Jarushi’s arrest by three days. Bitan, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was questioned on Sunday for a marathon 13 hours by the Lahav 433 Serious Crimes Unit on suspicion of receiving bribes, fraud, money laundering, and breach of trust. He is to be interrogated again on Wednesday.

A woman described as being “close” to Bitan was questioned for several hours Sunday and then released to house arrest. Police confronted her with documentation showing that large sums of money were moved into her bank accounts. She told investigators that although the account was in her name, it was run by Bitan at a time when his own accounts were being restricted by the bank.

Investigators have reportedly gathered considerable evidence including documents, recordings, and video footage. One of the suspects in the case has also apparently agreed to work with police and provide evidence against the other suspects.

The Walla news site reported Monday that police are also seeking to convince another of the suspects to become a state witness.

Zur, the mayor, is suspected of bribery, fraud, breach of trust and promoting certain construction projects in the city together with contractors. His remand was extended Sunday for five days. The arrest of a Rishon Lezion businessman, who is a central figure in the investigation but whose name has not been cleared for publication, was extended by 12 days. Police sources were quoted in Israeli media on Sunday as saying that if Bitan wasn’t a Knesset member and protected by immunity he’d also be under arrest.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference announcing a new reform for small businesses at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several coalition lawmakers, including prominent defenders of Netanyahu, cried foul over police’s timing in revealing the year-long graft and organized crime investigation surrounding Bitan.

The probe broke open just as Bitan, a key Netanyahu ally, was working to gather the votes for the final vote Monday on a bill that would forbid police from issuing recommendations about indictments when they conclude an investigation into a high-profile personage.

The bill is seen by critics as designed to protect Netanyahu from his multiple fraud investigations. It is opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, and police themselves.

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