Out of the interrogation room, into the mayor’s office?
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Local elections 2018

Out of the interrogation room, into the mayor’s office?

Among the candidates for local leadership in the October 30 elections are officials and ex-officials convicted, indicted, or under criminal investigation

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Mayor of Ashkelon Itamar Shimoni, seen at the Rishon Lezion Magistrates Court on January 12, 2016 (Flash90)
Mayor of Ashkelon Itamar Shimoni, seen at the Rishon Lezion Magistrates Court on January 12, 2016 (Flash90)

They are on trial for bribery, have been indicted for fraud, breach of trust and extortion, and were recently questioned by police in high-profile graft cases as criminal suspects. And they really, really want your votes.

In the upcoming October 30 local elections for city, local and regional councils, more than a handful of the incumbent and former mayors seeking reelection nationwide have a charge sheet under their belt.

An Israel Democracy Institute poll released on Tuesday showed that just 17 percent of Israelis believe there is no corruption at all in their local authorities (34% of Jewish respondents, and 62.5% of Arab respondents believe there is a great deal of corruption). But history has also shown that a whiff of criminal wrongdoing, or even an indictment, will not prevent Israeli voters from reinstalling embattled local politicians in office — particularly over white-collar crimes.

Under Israeli law, candidates may run for local government with indictments or convictions to their names and may only be disqualified from the race with a conviction of crimes that carry moral turpitude.

However, a 2013 amendment created a special Interior Ministry committee that may, at the request of the attorney general and pending a hearing, suspend sitting mayors who have been indicted, for up to a year. The panel can also extend the suspension beyond a year if the charges against the mayors are deemed serious.

The rare suspension of a mayor from office can last even through a reelection campaign, but the ministry panel cannot prevent such candidates from running, and, if victorious, appointing a replacement until their suspension is up. Suspended mayors are also eligible to receive half of their salaries for the first six months of suspension, and 70% in additional months, and if acquitted by a court, may seek the withheld portion retroactively.

Asked about some specific candidates in the upcoming elections who have been indicted, the attorney general’s office directed The Times of Israel to the Interior Ministry, and the latter confirmed:  “The committee was not convened on their candidacies.” It can still, however, suspend newly installed mayors after the election and before they take office, a ministry spokesperson suggested.

Separately, the state attorney’s office in recent months has been wrapping up the investigations of numerous local officials in the run-up to the elections, closing many of the cases without charges — and laying bare the staggering number of city officials who have come under police scrutiny in recent years.

In the past six months alone, cases have been closed without charge for a number of officials up for reelection: Safed Mayor Ilan Shochat, Kiryat Shemona Mayor Nissim Malka, Ramat Gan Mayor Yisrael Zinger, Mevasseret Zion Mayor Yoram Shimon (running unopposed), Kiryat Motzkin Mayor Chaim Tzuri, Dimona Mayor Beny Biton, Har Adar local council head Chen Filipovich, Hevel Modiin Regional Council head Shimon Sosan, and Hatzor HaGlilit Council head Shimon Suissa, as well as Jerusalem council member and mayoral candidate Moshe Lion and Petah Tikva mayoral candidate Rami Greenberg.

Candidate for the Jerusalem mayoral race Moshe Lion visits the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The laundry list of candidates under police investigation has proven to be a Rorschach test for both anti-corruption crusaders and critics of the police critics, with the former citing it as proof of rampant, systemic corruption in Israel’s local councils, and the latter criticizing what they describe as an overeager force sinking its teeth in nearly every local council — only to mostly come up empty-handed.

Below is a look at the candidates embroiled in criminal proceedings to various degrees of severity — including the two who were disqualified and several notable dropouts — whose statuses range from currently on trial to previously arrested but never charged and presumed innocent.

Disqualified

Moral turpitude, shmoral turpitude: Former Ramat Hasharon mayor Yitzchak “Itzik”‘ Rochberger was convicted in 2014 of fraud and breach of trust, false registration of official documents and forgery, in charges that saw him ousted from office. At the time, Rochberger was sentenced to six months of community service and a fine, and a court established that his crimes carried moral turpitude, which barred him from seeking political office for seven years.

That, however, hasn’t stopped Rochberger from brazenly launching a full-fledged political campaign for reelection in 2018 in Ramat Hasharon, a middle-class city in central Israel of some 50,000 residents. According to Hebrew reports, at his campaign events and parlor meetings, Rochberger has insisted to voters — with the support of a legal opinion of unclear origin — that moral turpitude only applies to crimes that carry actual jail time.

The Interior Ministry firmly disagreed and two weeks ago announced that Rochberger was banned from running. The Tel Aviv District Court last Tuesday rejected Rochberger’s appeal against the Interior Ministry decision.

Former mayor of Ramat HaSharon Yitzhak Rochberger, on charges of fraud, breach of trust and falsifying corporate documents, seen at the District Court in Tel Aviv on December 21, 2015. (Flash90)

Ahead of the 2013 local election, then-mayor Rochberger was removed from office by the High Court of Justice due to the corruption indictment against him (this predated the passage of the amendment creating the Interior Ministry’s mayors suspension panel), but justices also allowed him to run for reelection.

Despite the charges, Rochberger handily won with 57% of the vote in 2013. He was ousted months later.

The Arraba speed demon: In 2017, mayor Ali Asala of the Lower Galilee Arab city of Arraba was caught driving at 182 kilometers per hour (113 miles per hour) — double the speed limit.

He was handed a three-month suspended sentence, and his driver’s license was revoked for 18 months.

Just two months later, he was caught driving without a license (he told the court he was driving himself to the doctor, after feeling ill), resulting in the extension of his suspended sentence.

Prosecutors had sought to bar Asala from running for reelection by adding moral turpitude to his charges. Rebuffed by a lower court, they took their appeal to the Haifa District Court earlier this month.

On Thursday afternoon, five days before the election, Asala was handed another five-month suspended sentence and the court approved the moral turpitude request, according to Hebrew reports, knocking him out of the running.

Convictions and indictments

The suspended Ashkelon mayor who has made his lawyer his No. 2: The mayor of the coastal city of Ashkelon is currently on trial over charges of bribery and breach of trust. He’s also been suspended from office by the Interior Ministry.

But Itamar Shimoni is nonetheless doggedly running for reelection.

In February 2017, Shimoni was charged with accepting bribes totaling NIS 466,000 ($124,000) and with breach of trust for accepting a further NIS 575,000 ($153,000) from unknown sources while mayor of the city. He was also charged with tax fraud. Sexual misconduct charges against him have been dropped.

The Interior Ministry panel suspended Shimoni from his position for a year in February 2017, later extending the ban until late November 2018.

Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni arrives for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court on February 28, 2017. (Flash90)

Unfazed, Shimoni is campaigning for another term and has put his attorney, Eyal Avital, as his No 2. to serve as acting mayor until his suspension expires, should their “Ashkelon Will Win” party triumph.

Shimoni, 50, was elected mayor in 2013 with 52% of the vote.

In one of his few moments of national exposure (other than his trial), Shimoni was also famously panned by the prime minister, rights groups, and numerous senior officials after ordering a halt to construction on bomb shelters in city kindergartens in order to keep Arab workers out of the sites in the wake of a deadly 2014 terrorist attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

The former mayor of Yehud indicted for fraud over real estate deals: In August 2017, former Yehud mayor Yossi Ben David was charged with fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses over his advancement of real estate deals in 2009-2013 allegedly favoring his friend, a contractor, on whom he was “significantly financially dependent,” the charge sheet said.

Ben David is again running for mayor, a job he held for a decade from 2003 to 2013.

Local press reports have described him as a “popular” candidate, and featured polls indicating he could win.

Mayor of Yehud Yossi Ben David during a hearing at the Magistrates Court in Rishon LeZion, May 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The recently indicted Tamar Regional Council head implicated in the Yisrael Beytenu probe: On October 11, Dov Litvinoff, the head of the Tamar Regional Council, was indicted on breach of trust charges.

According to the indictment, in 2013, Litvinoff was consulted on a NIS 7 million transfer of state funds to the Dead Sea Drainage Authority, for which a third-party consulting firm was demanding a 25% commission for the transaction. Litvinoff supported the proposal, despite knowing the money was drawn from public funds, the court papers said. The deal, however, never went through.

Tamar Regional Council mayor Dov Litvinoff (L) pulls Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the beach wheelchairs on the new Ein Boqek promenade on April 3, 2017. The promenade has a number of paved paths leading to the water enabling visitors with physical disabilities easier access. (courtesy Mickey Lengental)

In a second, more serious charge, Litvinoff will confess to approving a NIS 400,000 transfer of state funds, from the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, to a private firm, apparently a front company. The money was a 25% kickback to Alex Wiznitzer,  then-chairman of the Mekorot Water Company, who had obtained a large government payout to the regional council from the Yisrael Beytenu party. Litvinoff was raising the funds to build a research center in the Dead Sea area.

“The funds were paid with the knowledge that the source of the money transferred from the Settlement Division was the state budget, and that the funds were under the Yisrael Beytenu party’s control as part of a coalition agreement,” a statement from the Justice Ministry earlier this month said. “The defendant was aware that the commission that was paid to the company was to be transferred to Wiznitzer and assessed that from him, it would be handed over to additional public officials.”

The breach of trust charges were lodged as part of a plea bargain. Prosecutors are seeking 9 months’ imprisonment for Litvinoff, and want to attach moral turpitude to the conviction.

With no conviction yet handed down, he is still running for reelection next week.

The head of the Reineh council in the Galilee charged with extortion, fraud: Khaled Tatur, the head of the Arab Israeli Reineh Council in the Galilee, was charged in November 2017 with extortion, fraud and breach of trust over an incident that took place in early 2014, shortly after he took office.

In a rare move, the Interior Ministry’s mayor suspension panel in June rejected the attorney general’s request to have Tatur suspended due to the charges.

He will be facing off against two other candidates next week to keep his post.

The Haifa mayoral candidate convicted of building violations: Haifa mayoral candidate Einat Kalisch Rotem made headlines earlier this month when a court disqualified her candidacy on a technicality. She was reinstated by the High Court of Justice earlier this week.

An urban planner and architect by trade, Kalisch Rotem was convicted in March of building a three-story house in Zichron Yaakov without a building permit, according to The Marker business daily. She was fined NIS 30,000 for her involvement.

Kalisch Rotem is seen as one of two possible realistic challengers to longtime Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav.

Einat Kalisch Rotem arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2018, about her disqualification from running for mayor in Haifa in the upcoming elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Beer Yaakov Council chief convicted over building violations and backed by Netanyahu: Similar to Kalisch Rotem, Nissim Gozlan, the head of the Beer Yaakov local council, in 2015 was convicted of advancing a project without a building permit.

A court fined Gozlan NIS 17,000 and barred him and other municipal officials involved in the case from attending municipality building planning meetings for two years.

Gozlan has served as head of the local council since 2003. He has been endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his bid for reelection in 2018.

The convicted Mediterranean polluter now accused of fraud: In 2004, the mayor of coastal Nahariya, Jacky Sabag, was convicted of dumping raw sewage into the Mediterranean and ordered to pay a NIS 8,000 fine.

The 74-year-old three-time mayor found himself again under the police eye with a July 2018 interrogation on suspicion of breach of trust, in a probe Hebrew reports said dated back to 2013 and remains open.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (L) with mayor of Nahariya Jacky Sabag on December 8, 2016. (Yaacov Cohen/Flash90)

Under criminal investigation, but not charged

The beloved longtime matron-mayor of Netanya: The mayor of the coastal city of Netanya, Miriam Feirberg-Ikar, is seeking a fifth term at the helm of the city after 20 years in office.

But Feirberg-Ikar — who in 2013, ran away with a whopping 72% of the vote — is also at the heart of a graft investigation dating back to 2016, and prosecutors have yet to decide whether to indict her or drop the charges.

Mayor of Netanya Miriam Feirberg-Ikar poses for a picture in the street of Netanya on March 6, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Hebrew media reports have suggested there were evidentiary disparities in the case, which is centered on alleged fraud and breach of trust over benefits to real estate developers.

A final decision will only be made after the election.

Feirberg-Ikar has been endorsed in her 2018 bid by Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Mayor of Netanya, Miriam Feirberg-Ikar (L) at the funeral of Israeli prominent defense attorney Yaakov Weinroth, on October 16, 2018. (Flash90)

In 2016, as the allegations emerged, the Interior Ministry awarded, and then revoked, a financial management award to Feirberg-Ikar. The award was then granted to Ramat Gan’s Yisrael Zinger, who at the time was a suspect in a fraud probe (and has since been cleared of all charges).

The Rishon Lezion mayor linked to the coalition whip’s corruption probe: Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur is also clinging to his seat, despite a string of allegations against him in a high-profile corruption probe that saw him temporarily suspended.

Zur was removed from office for 45 days when he was arrested in early December for alleged involvement in a bribery case involving Likud MK David Bitan — a former Rishon Lezion deputy mayor — and senior figures in the Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv municipalities.

Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur arrives for extension of his remand at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, December 7, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Zur is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for promoting certain construction projects in the city together with contractors, police said at the time.

The clean politics crusader-turned suspect: In June 2018, Hadera Mayor Zvi “Zvika” Gendelman was among several suspects interrogated by the police anti-fraud unit, Lahav 433, after an early morning raid on their homes and offices.

He was questioned over suspected bribery, corruption and tax-related offenses and was remanded for a week in custody.

The centrist Yesh Atid party, which champions clean politics, subsequently suspended Gendelman from its ranks.

Hadera Mayor Zvi Gendelman arrives for extension of his remand at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Letzion, June 4, 2018 (Flash90)

Gendelman, now of the Hadera Betnufa party, is the third consecutive Hadera mayor to be investigated for corruption (one predecessor was convicted; the other was let off without charge).

The Nazareth mayor who taught Trump ‘everything he knows,’ but never met him: Also seeking reelection is Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, who in May outed himself as the previously unnamed senior municipal official under criminal investigation.  Police had announced they detained a number of city officials for questioning over suspicions of theft, accepting an illegal gift in aggravated circumstances, fraud and breach of trust.

A longtime critic of the Joint (Arab) List and its chairman, Ayman Odeh, Salam memorably stunned listeners in a radio interview in northern Israel in November 2016 when he told them he taught the newly elected US president how to win his election, despite having never met him.

Nazareth mayor Ali Salam appears at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 30, 2014 (Flash90)

“It is a fact that Trump learned from me, he learned everything from me,” said Salam. His claims seemed to be partly based on the fact that, after his victory, Trump told supporters “I love you, I love you, I love you,” a phrase Salam said he himself used when he won the Nazareth election five years ago.

Salam did not claim to have ever met Trump, nor did he provide evidence that the president-elect knew of his existence, but said that the battle for the Nazareth municipality had been ferocious like the US election. Asked if Trump and Salam could perhaps have had similar ideas without coordination, the mayor was adamant: “This is no coincidence.”

A year later, the Muslim mayor of Jesus’s hometown again made headlines when he canceled, and then reinstated, Christmas festivities in the city in protest of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In 2012, when he served as deputy mayor, Salam’s son Basel was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting his wife some two years earlier during a domestic dispute.

“My son received this punishment solely because he is the son of the deputy mayor,” claimed the elder Salam at the time, according to Hadashot news. The television network also reported that the then-deputy mayor was a vocal, active attendee at demonstrations decrying violence against women, and had been at one the week of the murder.

The Zichron Yaakov leader accused of extortion: In 2016, Eli Abutbol, the head of the Zichron Yaakov Regional Council, resigned after police recommended he stand trial for extortion. The police recommendation, however, never yielded an indictment by prosecutors. Abutbol announced he would be seeking to run again in 2018.

Another candidate who was recommended to stand trial following a police investigation is the head of the Tur’an council in northern Israel, Imad Dahla, who is suspected of promising political appointments in exchange for support in the 2013 local elections. Prosecutors have yet to announce whether Dahla will be indicted.

Notable dropouts

The Emmanuel mayor charged with buying votes: Ezra Gershi, the mayor of the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel, was indicted in August for allegedly bribing local members of the Chabad Hasidic movement and illegally influencing the outcome of the 2013 municipal elections. According to the charge sheet, Gershi made unlawful commitments to local Chabad members in order to secure their votes in the 2013 election in Emmanuel, which he ultimately won.

In 2018, he announced he would still be running, only to drop out of the race a week before the election. In scrapping his bid, Gershi said he reached an agreement with fellow candidate Eliyahu Gafni to serve as his deputy mayor if the latter manages to defeat Moshe Hagiel in the elections.

Emmanuel mayor Ezra Gershi speaks in his office in December 11, 2011. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Residents of the settlement, population 3,000, have suspected Gershi of abusing his position, The Times of Israel’s Jacob Magid has reported, with a video circulating over the past year in Emmanuel of what appears to be the mayor turning off the street lamps via a switch inside his house before going to bed, ostensibly so that he can get a better night’s rest.

The convicted ex-mayor ‘insured’ for sexual harassment: In March 2013, Motti Malka, then mayor of Kiryat Malachi, was convicted under a plea bargain of two counts of sexual misconduct, as well as building violations. He was later sentenced to 250 hours of community service and a six-month suspended sentence, and ordered to compensate the two women.

Malka, 65, had been originally arrested after facing accusations in 2012, through the media, of several incidents of rape.

Over the summer, the ex-mayor of the hometown of convicted rapist president Moshe Katsav announced he would be seeking a political homecoming to the office he held for a decade, beginning in 2003. But he has since quietly abandoned his plans following a small outcry, with his name not among the candidates on the Interior Ministry documents.

At the time of his conviction, Army Radio reported that senior municipality officials in Kiryat Malachi had, since 2005, been renewing annually a clause in their workplace insurance designed to shield them from sexual harassment lawsuits, though it remains unclear whether Malka was ever compensated.

Kiryat Malachi Mayor Moti Malka returns home after the State Attorney’s Office announced that he will only be charged with two counts of sexual harassment in his capacity as mayor, and will not face charges related to the most serious accusations against him, rape. Sep 12 2012. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

In September 2018, the Beersheba Labor Court ordered the city to pay Malka nearly NIS 150,000 in compensation over a withheld salary. The sum covered the 65 days in which Malka was under in house arrest, during which time, he argued, he was working, the Ynet news website reported.

Kiryat Malachi Mayor Motti Malka attends a court hearing on Wednesday (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Kiryat Malachi Mayor Motti Malka attends a court hearing on Wednesday (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

The Mateh Yehuda Regional Council leader who just inked a plea bargain: One of the most serious indictments handed down in recent years against local officials was lodged against Mateh Yehuda Regional Council leader Moshe Dadon in early October.

Dadon, who had previously announced he would seek reelection, has dropped his candidacy.

Along with his brother, he has been charged with bribery, obstruction of justice, violating a legal order, fraud and breach of trust after “forming an intimate relationship with a council worker who was under his command,” according to the Justice Ministry.

Mateh Judea Regional Council Chairman, Moshe Dadon, seen at the Jerusalem District Court to receive his verdict on charges of bribery, after accepting a plea bargain and a 4-year prison sentence, on October 7, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Under a plea bargain agreed to by the defendants, prosecutors are seeking four years’ imprisonment for Dadon, forfeiture of property evaluated at NIS 350,000 and a fine of NIS 100,000. Dadon agreed to leave his post and “it was clarified that the offenses for which he was charges carry moral turpitude,” the Justice Ministry said.

AFP, Jacob Magid, and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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