Last month, employees of the State Comptroller’s Office received a letter from their director-general warning them against speaking to the media about the conduct of the comptroller.
The message came on the heels of a series of leaks from employees expressing grave concern about actions taken by State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman since his June appointment, which they asserted were rendering his office toothless.
Englman has dismissed the reports against him as baseless and claimed that those who spoke to the media were seeking to discredit him before he’d published even a single audit.
However, a former State Comptroller’s Office official still in contact with his old colleagues told The Times of Israel that the reality regarding Englman’s conduct is “even worse than what’s being reported,” and that the new ombudsman is bent on making audits “completely irrelevant.”
Politically motivated whitewashing
One of the more egregious reports regarding Englman came from The Marker business daily, which revealed last month that officials at the comptroller’s office were refusing to put their names on a long-anticipated audit of the Finance Ministry because, they claimed, Englman had whitewashed its conclusions.
The comptroller report probed, among other things, whether the ministry had used inappropriate methods to arrive at the number it presented for the 2018 budget deficit in order for it to meet the target figure. In the audit’s draft version, officials under Englman told The Marker, they had written conclusions saying Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the ministry’s director-general, Shai Babad, exerted pressure on their subordinates to delay the publication of the budget deficit until after this year’s April elections over fears that the number would not play well for Kahlon’s Kulanu party at the polls.
The comptroller staffers were shocked to learn that the final version of the report sent to the Prime Minister’s Office included no mention of the allegations against Kahlon and Babad, according to the report.
Last week, meanwhile, an official in Englman’s office told the Calcalist business daily that his boss had scrapped a chapter from an annual audit addressing complaints made by Palestinians against officers in the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration operating in the West Bank. According to the official, Englman decided to deviate from the policy of his predecessors on the matter by claiming that his office did not have authority to audit bodies beyond the Green Line — a peculiar position for an appointee of a right-wing government, which has worked over the years to normalize Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
This followed an earlier report in The Marker alleging that Englman softened and delayed the publication of an audit into the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council and the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which dealt with political appointees made at the two bodies by then-communication minister Ayoub Kara.
A phone call recording between Kara and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaked to Channel 13 earlier this year exposed the premier’s deep involvement in media issues, despite his having relinquished the communications portfolio in 2017 amid an ongoing criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with major media outlets. The draft version of the comptroller report that Englman received from his predecessor, Yosef Shapira, would have further implicated the prime minister in misconduct surrounding media issues, the official who spoke to The Marker indicated.
As such reports against Englman’s conduct have continued to pile up in business dailies, Englman found himself forced to issue a rare statement on Sunday addressing the allegations directly.
“The media stories criticizing the audit work of the state comptroller are a distortion of reality that diminishes public confidence in the office’s work as well as the ministries being audited before a single [comptroller’s] report has even been published,” he said. “When the reports are released, it will be proven to everyone that they are very significant and effective reports that reveal significant deficiencies along with recommendations for public bodies to enact.”
Englman went on to assert that no report was being “shelved or censored,” but that he refused to act as a rubber stamp with regards to audits that were carried out under his predecessor but that had not yet been published. The comptroller said it was his duty to review those reports in their entirety before signing off on them and that in some cases he has asked staffers to “provide clarification, additional information and if necessary, to deepen the factual basis [of their conclusions].”
‘Atmosphere of fear’
The former official in the comptroller’s office who spoke to The Times of Israel dismissed Englman’s defense.
“People there tell me things are even worse than what’s being reported,” he said.
He pointed to the ombudsman’s new “constructive criticism” policy, which requires staffers to include in their audits of government offices, as proof that Englman was not interested in keeping a tight leash on the ministries he is mandated to inspect.
“Whereas once the ministries feared the State Comptroller’s Office, now the office’s employees fear the comptroller,” the former official summarized.
Citing the letter sent by the director-general warning staffers against speaking to the press, the former official described an “atmosphere of fear” that has taken hold since Englman began his tenure, in which staffers who have worked in the State Comptroller’s Office for years are now afraid for their jobs.
The former official went on to argue that Englman has been carrying out the will of the prime minister, who worked aggressively to ensure his appointment.
For example, the ex-comptroller staffer cited a rare meeting between Englman and Netanyahu, after which the ombudsman announced a shakeup of the committee tasked with ruling on whether the premier can accept donations from tycoon allies to fund his legal defense.
“He’s doing exactly what Netanyahu has asked of him,” the former official concluded.
Englman, for his part, has insisted that the leaks against him are politically motivated. When his first batch of reports are published by March 10 — a week after the general election — all the hubbub, he says, will turn out to have been for naught.