Netanyahu told he can’t use foreigners’ money to fund legal defense

Rejecting request, committee says ‘inappropriate’ for PM’s wealthy associates to pay legal fees in criminal case connected to his other wealthy associates

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech before lighting a menorah during the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech before lighting a menorah during the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

The State Comptroller’s Office on Wednesday said wealthy associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot cover his legal fees in the series of corruption investigations against him.

Attorneys for the prime minister sought permission for US tycoon Spencer Partrich and Netanyahu’s cousin Nathan Milikowsky to pay his legal fees in three graft case in which police have recommended he be indicted, including a probe that centers on lavish gifts from the prime minister’s billionaire friends.

In its decision, the Comptroller’s Permits Committee said it was inappropriate for non-Israeli benefactors to pay for the legal defense in a criminal case relating to receiving funds from wealthy benefactors.

“The financing of legal outlays arising from a criminal investigation, which includes a suspicion of criminal acts in connection with various wealthy people, should not be done by wealthy people,” the ombudsman committee wrote in its decision.

“Such funding may harm public trust in government in the context of integrity,” the committee said. “Under the circumstances, giving permission to break the rules is not justified or appropriate from the public’s perspective.”

The committee also said Netanyahu’s request failed to answer “basic questions,” including the amounts he was seeking from the donors, how much had already been contributed, and to which cases the money would be designated.

A spokesperson for the Netanyahu family declined a Times of Israel request to comment on the decision or to explain why the prime minister’s legal team withheld such information from the committee.

Netanyahu’s net worth is estimated at NIS 42 million ($11 million), Forbes Israel reported in 2015, making him the fourth-richest politician in Israel at the time. He is currently the richest member of the 120-seat Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party event in Ramat Gan, marking the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on December 2, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The committee headed by a district court judge reached its decision last Thursday. On Monday, Netanyahu lawyer Navot Tel-Zur asked the committee for a 30-day delay in publishing its decision; however, the request was rejected and the committee published its decision on Wednesday.

The publication of the decision comes days after police investigators said there was enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and fraudulently accepting benefits in a corruption investigation known as Case 4000. It is the third case in which police have recommended bribery charges against the prime minister. They also recommended that his wife, Sara, stand trial in the case.

Spencer Partrich (Courtesy)

Last year, both Milikowsky and Partrich were questioned by police in their Netanyahu investigation dubbed Case 1000, in which the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving some NIS 1 million ($282,000) in illicit gifts from businessmen in return for certain benefits. In his testimony, Partrich admitted to police that he had bought Netanyahu a number of expensive suits but said Milikowsky paid him back for them, Haaretz reported in January.

The prime minister is also being investigated in Case 2000, which involves alleged negotiations with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonoth daily, Arnon Mozes, and focuses on the prime minister’s supposed promise to advance legislation to hobble the Sheldon Adelson-controlled Israel Hayom paper in exchange for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000 earlier this year.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, and has accused police of waging a witch hunt against him.

The police recommendations have been submitted to Attorney General’s Office, where they will first be reviewed by the state prosecutor before going to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Mandelblit, who will make the final decision whether to indict the prime minister, intends to examine all three cases at the same time, which will be possible only after he receives the state attorney’s recommendations based on the final police reports.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

That process makes late 2019 the likely timing for any final word on whether Netanyahu will face trial. The next Knesset elections are currently slated for November 2019, but may very well be held earlier.

Coalition partners have previously said that they would not leave the government unless a full indictment was filed against the prime minister, but recent crises may have shifted allegiances in the coalition after it was reduced last month to a paper-thin majority of just 61-59 in the 120-seat Knesset.

On Tuesday, two lawyers on Netanyahu’s legal team quit, with a report indicating his attorneys may not have been paid for months as the prime minister waited to find out if he would be allowed to receive funds from foreign benefactors.

Keren Shapira-Ettinger and Eyal Cohen both confirmed that they would no longer represent Netanyahu.

Hadashot news reported that Netanyahu asked his lawyers to postpone their payment until after the comptroller announced his decision, but said that Shapira-Ettinger did not agree.

A day earlier, Netanyahu expanded his legal team by hiring attorneys Tal Shapira and Ariel Kafri from Shapira-Bar-Zik Advocates, who are expected to play senior roles in defending him, Hebrew media reports said.

Last week, Hadashot TV news reported that Netanyahu also hired attorney Navot Tel-Zur, an experienced defender of public figures in graft probes, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

Former Tel Aviv District Court judge Oded Mudrick is also joining the team as an adviser. Mudrick is a longtime colleague of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will be making the final decision on whether to indict Netanyahu, having served with him in the past as a judge in the Israel Defense Force’s internal justice system.

Amit Hadad, who has been leading Netanyahu’s defense team, will remain on board in a reduced capacity.

The new additions come a month after the death of Yaakov Weinroth, who was among Israel’s most prominent lawyers and was one of the attorneys representing Netanyahu in the corruption probes.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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