PM’s lawyer cheers as Ashkelon ex-mayor acquitted over media quid pro quo

PM’s lawyer cheers as Ashkelon ex-mayor acquitted over media quid pro quo

Itamar Shimoni convicted of bribery, money laundering; but the charges he was found innocent of are touted as a possibly precedent-setting ruling for Netanyahu

Ex-Mayor of Ashkelon Itamar Shimoni arrives a the Tel Aviv District Court on September 26, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Ex-Mayor of Ashkelon Itamar Shimoni arrives a the Tel Aviv District Court on September 26, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The partial exoneration of a minor Israeli politician on trial for corruption involving news outlets was touted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorney on Monday, who claimed it weakens the state’s position in the most serious of the criminal cases against the prime minister.

The Tel Aviv District Court on Monday convicted ex-Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni of bribery, breach of trust and money laundering, but found him not guilty of swaying media coverage in his favor.

In 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 serving as mayor of the city. He was also charged with tax fraud and sex crimes, but those charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

According to the indictment, Shimoni signed hush money arrangements totaling over NIS 1 million ($285,000) with two former female employees who accused him of sexual assault.

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

The former mayor was also charged with helping his associate Yoel Davidi take ownership of a local website, Ashkelon 10, which was highly critical of Shimoni and his council, in order to silence it, in exchange for favorable businesses opportunities.

But the judge acquitted Davidi and Shimoni on the fraud charges relating to the local news site, saying in her ruling that since positive media coverage is intangible, it’s much harder to prove a quid pro quo arrangement.

“Due to the nature and status of the media, caution must be exercised in attributing criminal offenses to the actions of media outlets,” Judge Limor Margolin-Yehidi wrote in her ruling.

Media outlets in Israel took note of Margolin-Yehidi’s decision, with many saying it was a precedent-setting ruling that will be taken into account during the likely trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Case 4000. In that case, Netanyahu is accused of arranging a quid pro quo with the owner of a news website guaranteeing positive coverage of the prime minister in exchange for business benefits.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem on November 3, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu’s lawyers argue that Shimoni’s verdict is relevant to Case 4000, in which the prime minister is suspected of advancing regulatory decisions that greatly enriched the owner of the Bezeq telecom giant in exchange for positive coverage on a news site that was part of the same group.

“The court acquitted the defendants of the charge that positive coverage is a bribe — and did not create that precedent,” the prime minister’s attorney said in a statement.

Netanyahu is also suspected of fraud and breach of trust in two other cases. One of them, Case 2000, also involves a suspected quid pro quo under which the prime minister is accused of seeking more positive coverage from the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in exchange for hobbling its rival, the free daily Israel Hayom, through Knesset legislation.

The attorney general is expected to indict Netanyahu in the coming weeks.

Though prosecutors demanded Shimoni be removed from his position during the trial that began in mid-2017, Shimoni refused and continued to serve as mayor until he was voted out of office in November 2018.

Shimoni’s conviction comes a week after police arrested more than a dozen employees of local municipalities, including the mayor of the northern city of Kiryat Ata, Yaakov Peretz, and Tel Mond Council Head Shmuel Siso, for their suspected roles in a wide-ranging kickback scheme.

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