PM forced to return $300k legal defense money from cousin and clothing donation

Comptroller’s Permits Committee again rejects Netanyahu’s request for tycoon funding in corruption cases against him; Likud slams ruling as ‘outrageous’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on February 3, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on February 3, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

The State Comptroller’s Permits Committee on Sunday rejected for the second time a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fund his legal defense in the three corruption cases he is facing via payments from wealthy associates, including his cousin.

The committee also ruled that funds already received from Netanyahu’s associates were improper, and that he would have to return $300,000 to his cousin Nathan Milikowsky and business attire given by American millionaire Spencer Partrich, Hebrew-language media reported.

After State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s office in December denied Netanyahu’s request for permission to have businessman Milikowsky, who is based in the US, and Partrich cover his legal fees, the premier’s legal defense team last month filed a renewed request asking to receive a million dollars in the first phase and $2 million later on. Netanyahu also reportedly said he would pay $100,000 out of pocket to help fund his legal defense.

In the cases against him, the prime minister is suspected of receiving benefits from rich benefactors in return for using his offices to advance their interests. In its December decision, the Comptroller’s Permits Committee said it was inappropriate for non-Israeli benefactors to pay for legal defense in a criminal case relating to receiving funds from wealthy benefactors.

Shapira also reportedly asked Mandelblit last month to investigate whether Netanyahu had improperly received $300,000 from Milikowsky to fund his legal defense without getting the necessary permission from the State Comptroller’s Office.

Spencer Partrich (Courtesy)

Mandelblit announced at the time that if the comptroller again ruled against Netanyahu, the premier would be forced to return the money, which had already been handed to his lawyers.

In its decision Sunday, the committee ruled that in accordance with Mandelblit’s announcement, the prime minister must now return the sum to Milikowsky and the clothing — or its value if it had already been worn — to Partrich.

The committee added that according to Netanyahu’s declaration of capital he is “affluent,” and therefore he must prove that he has exhausted all his options to self-fund his legal defense before accepting donations.

Netanyahu’s attorney Navot Tel-Zur had argued that Netanyahu and his legal team believed that donations from a family member do not require the approval of the committee, adding that the funds from Milikowsky were received between March 2017 and March 2018, before the attorney general had clarified that such donations require approval.

Over the past year, attorneys for Netanyahu have sought permission for Milikowsky and Partrich to pay his legal bills in the three separate criminal investigations in which police have recommended he be indicted, including a probe that centers on lavish gifts from the prime minister’s billionaire friends.

Last year, both Milikowsky and Partrich were questioned by police in the 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, the Haaretz newspaper reported in January.

In the renewed request to approve the funding, Netanyahu’s lawyers had argued that the first request was haphazardly prepared due to the illness of the prime minister’s previous attorney, Yaakov Weinroth, who has since died, according to a report Sunday by Channel 12.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, March 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Cases of monstrous magnitude such as 1000, 2000 and 4000 that are accumulating in front of our eyes, require different and exceptional treatment due to the defense costs which are unprecedented in their extent,” Netanyahu’s lawyers wrote in their new request.

“Whoever wants one man to face such a huge, complicated series of cases, must acknowledge that an individual isn’t able to bring forward an adequate defense single-handedly against such a mass of suspicions and investigation materials,” they continued.

Netanyahu’s Likud party responded by slamming the decision as “outrageous and one-sided, directed solely against Prime Minister Netanyahu,” and referring to the current election campaign season.

“No means is off-limits for the goal of establishing a left-wing government headed by Lapid-Gantz, including revoking Netanyahu’s right to fund his legal defense, a basic right given to every Knesset member but that is now being denied to one lawmaker named Benjamin Netanyahu,” the statement, said, adding that the premier would appeal to the High Court of Justice.

The statement was referring to the newly established Blue and White party, formed in recent days by Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz and fellow centrist leader Yair Lapid, which is currently ahead of Likud in polls despite Likud being seen as more likely to be able to form the next government.

Netanyahu’s lawyers similarly responded that the decision was “unprecedented and harms fundamental values.”

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel hailed the ombudsman’s decision as “correct, appropriate and necessary,” adding that it would have been “inconceivable” had Netanyahu been allowed to fund his legal defense through donations from tycoons, when his case revolves around such gifts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

In addition to the investigation into the gifts he received from billionaire benefactors, Netanyahu is being investigated in two other probes — cases 2000 and 4000 — involving potential quid pro quo deals for regulatory favors or beneficial legislation in exchange for positive media coverage. Police have recommended that he be indicted for bribery in all three cases, a charge that state prosecutors reportedly also favor in at least one of the cases.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, and has accused police, media, and law enforcement of waging a witch hunt against him.

Mandelblit, Israel’s top legal officer, is expected to publish his conclusions on the three cases within the next week, after rejecting the prime minister’s demand that any decision to indict be postponed until after Israel’s April 9 elections.

Mandelblit can only file charges after holding a hearing with Netanyahu, which will likely not take place until after the election.

Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Mandelblit has confirmed that this is the case.

Israeli law only requires that a prime minister step down if convicted, but experts have suggested that Netanyahu may also face pressure from jurists and fellow lawmakers if he seeks to stay in office should a formal indictment be filed at the completion of a hearing process.

Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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