The investigation into alleged misuse of state funds by the Netanyahu family led to a new headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday as transcripts of recordings emerged from 2010 conversations between a former close confidant of the family and the Prime Minister’s Office top legal adviser in which the two officials discuss allegedly inappropriate uses of public funds by the premier and his wife.
The recordings, made by Netanyahu spokesman-turned-state’s witness Nir Hefetz, feature conversations Hefetz had with the legal adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, Shlomit Barnea Farago.
The two are heard in the tapes discussing what they termed “greedy” demands made by Sara Netanyahu for the state to fund landscaping work at the Netanyahus’ private home in Caesarea, among other expenditures, as well as the need to “protect the prime minister” from becoming “mixed up” in the alleged misappropriation of public funds, Hadashot TV said, quoting what it said were excerpts.
Prime Minister Netanyahu released a laconic but strident response, slamming the publication of the transcripts and dismissing the allegations as “false gossip that has no connection with the truth.”
In the transcripts, Hefetz at one point describes to Barnea Farago how Sara Netanyahu allegedly would take four or five suitcases worth of dirty laundry on state trips so that they could send it for dry cleaning at hotels where they stayed, paid for by the state.
Barnea Farago protested: “That’s misuse of public money, to bring laundry that isn’t used on the trip just so it can be dry-cleaned.”
On one occasion mentioned in the transcripts, Sara Netanyahu is said to have taken eight suitcases of dirty laundry on an overseas trip for dry-cleaning abroad. Hefetz and Barnea Farago discuss why she would do that, when the state budget covers unlimited dry cleaning expenses, and speculate that she “likes the smell” on the clothes after foreign dry cleaning.
Some of the complaints focused on the lack of clarity about the rules that applied to the Netanyahus, especially when it came to receiving personal gifts from well-wishers and world leaders.
After discussing the prohibition on receiving personal gifts for their private residence in Caesarea, Hefetz told Barnea Farago at one point that “you gave me one example of [receiving] gifts, but I know there were many instances of gifts that went straight to [the prime minister’s official residence on] Balfour [Street in Jerusalem].”
Barnea Farago then complained that there wasn’t a hard and fast rule on the issue. “I want the attorney general to tell me what to do, that Yehuda [Weinstein, then the attorney general,] say ‘Balfour rules are Caesarea rules,'” in other words, that gifts are not permitted to the prime minister’s official Jerusalem Balfour Street residence either.
“What is this double game?” she demands of Hefetz. “I have to be the one confronting the prime minister?”
At one point Barnea Farago warns Hefetz, “We have to protect the prime minister so he doesn’t get mixed up in these things, and we also have to protect ourselves. Tomorrow they’ll come and ask how we approved all these things.”
Staff at the prime minister’s two residences have long complained about alleged mistreatment by Sara Netanyahu, complaints that have been the subject of lawsuits and media scandals, and have been vehemently denied by the Netanyahus.
In the transcripts, Hefetz tells Farago, “I saw with my own eyes [top adviser] Natan [Eshel] and [then-deputy director general of the PMO] Ezra [Saidoff], with my own eyes, standing in the Caesarea [home] and cleaning the air conditioner.”
The revelations in the tapes are eight years old, but their publication comes just three days after state attorneys filed an indictment against Sara Netanyahu for alleged misuse of some $100,000 in state funds between 2010 and 2013.
In Thursday’s indictment, the prime minister’s wife is charged along with Saidoff for fraud and breach of trust.
The two are accused of fraudulently charging some NIS 359,000 ($100,000) in gourmet meals to the state’s expense during the period in question, violating rules which ban the ordering of prepared food when a chef is already employed at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu falsely claimed there was no cook at the time in the Jerusalem home in order to purchase meals from restaurants.
The charges against Saidoff are more severe as he is also accused of illicitly hiring chefs and servers for private meals at the Netanyahu home. The PMO staffer also falsified invoices for such activities in order to get them approved.
The indictment also covers the employment of an electrician, whose hiring had originally been scrapped by the PMO due to the man’s close connection to the Netanyahu family.
Saidoff is accused of falsifying documents that were used to circumvent the PMO’s original order that the electrician’s hiring be annulled.
Yehoshua Reznik, a lawyer for Saidoff, denied the charges, calling them “fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with the legal and factual situation as shown by the evidence in the case.”
Thursday’s charges were reportedly based in part on testimony from Hefetz.
The decision to launch the investigation into Sara Netanyahu came after allegations of misuse of funds were raised in a 2015 report by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira that detailed lavish spending at the official residence in Jerusalem, as well as at the Netanyahus’ Caesarea home.
Under state regulations, cooks at the Prime Minister’s Residence are supposed to supply prime ministers and their immediate families with daily meals. Where cooks are not employed, the PM’s family is permitted to order external meals, up to a maximum cost of NIS 200 ($57) per person plus tax.
The state is also authorized to foot the bill for private guests of the prime minister and his or her spouse so long as this is not a social or family event involving more than 20 people.