Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers: Charges ‘absurd,’ rules she allegedly broke ‘illegal’

Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers: Charges ‘absurd,’ rules she allegedly broke ‘illegal’

After PM’s wife indicted for misusing $100,000 in state funds to buy gourmet food, attorneys insist she did nothing wrong; defense team said to be split on strategy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara arrive at the torch lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl on April 18, 2018. (Screen capture/Facebook)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara arrive at the torch lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl on April 18, 2018. (Screen capture/Facebook)

Lawyers defending Sara Netanyahu, who was indicted Thursday for misusing $100,000 in state funds, claimed that the regulations governing expenditure in the prime minister’s residence had no legal standing because they had not been approved by the government.

In the indictment, the prime minister’s wife is charged along with Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, with fraud along with breach of trust.

The two are accused of fraudulently charging some NIS 359,000 ($100,000) in gourmet meals to the state’s expense between 2010 and 2013, violating laws that ban the ordering of prepared food when a chef is already employed at the official residence.

“The most absurd thing in the indictment stems from the fact that it is based on illegal regulations, and even the person who wrote the regulations admits that they are illegal,” Netanyahu’s lawyers said in an official statement. “The regulations covering food were written on the fly by three officials who were unauthorized to do so.”

The lawyers claimed that the Knesset Finance Committee, which is the only body authorized to determine which of the prime minister’s expenses are covered by the state, never approved the regulations that underpin the indictment. On the contrary, they said, the committee had ruled that all the expenses of the prime minister and his family should be paid for by the state, similar to the policy in the president’s official residence.

The lawyers said that it was unheard of anywhere in the world for a prime minister’s wife to be charged for something as trivial as food expenses.

“There was no fraud and no breach of trust or accepting bribes or any crime at all,” they added. “The prime minister’s wife, who is not a public servant, does not know the regulations, and passed a polygraph test when she was asked about this.”

“Not only is the indictment based on false claims,” they said, “it is based entirely on invalid and illegal regulations that apply specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to him alone.”

There were and still are differences of opinion between the lawyers defending Sara Netanyahu, Hebrew media reported Thursday. Some feel the best approach is to go to court and crush the witnesses, by showing they are unreliable and untrustworthy. Another team of lawyers working for the Netanyahu family wanted to try to avoid a trial, and work out a plea deal with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan.

Hebrew news reports late Thursday suggested the state might still be receptive to the idea of a plea bargain, despite having filed the charges.

Mandelblit and Nitzan had notified the prime minister’s wife of their intention to file charges several months ago.

Negotiations for her to return a portion of the diverted money and confess to the charges in exchange for avoiding prosecution broke down when the prime minister’s wife reportedly refused to pay the sums requested by prosecutors, telling her lawyers she’d rather go to jail than reimburse the state. Her lawyers have denied such reports.

Ezra Saidoff, deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem on May 10, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the indictment, Netanyahu falsely claimed there was no cook at the time in the Jerusalem home in order to justify purchasing 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 allegedly 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, lawyer for Saidoff, said the charges were “fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with the legal and factual situation as shown by the evidence in the case.”

Thursday’s charges came after Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu family aide turned state’s witness, provided testimony to prosecutors regarding Sara Netanyahu’s alleged misappropriation of public funds for personal use.

The decision to launch the investigation into Sara Netanyahu came in light of the state prosecutor’s recommendation, after allegations 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 VAT. 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.

A draft indictment, which was leaked last year, detailed allegedly illegal spending of up to NIS 25,000 (some $7,000) per month by the prime minister’s wife on meals from top restaurants in Jerusalem. It detailed 15 cases in which Sara Netanyahu ordered food from outside chefs including Shalom Kadosh and Lior Hafzadi.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara, second right, host US president Donald Trump, left, and his wife Melania at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

In addition to the fraud case, Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu have been questioned as part of the Bezeq telecommunications giant graft probe. The case involves suspicions Prime Minister Netanyahu advanced regulations benefiting Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.

Police have also recommended the prime minister himself stand trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other cases. The attorney general has yet to decide whether to press charges against the prime minister.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The premier denies any wrongdoing.

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