Draft indictment: Sara Netanyahu’s misuse of funds was systematic, deliberate

In newly leaked document, Avichai Mandelblit describes how PM’s wife and senior official colluded to ‘circumvent rules and restrictions’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara visits cancer patients and their parents at a protest tent in Jerusalem's Sacher Park on June 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara visits cancer patients and their parents at a protest tent in Jerusalem's Sacher Park on June 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, acted systematically and deliberately in her misuse of public funds to pay for lavish meals for herself and her family, according to the draft indictment for Mrs. Netanyahu, leaked to the press on Wednesday.

In the document, published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit accuses Sara Netanyahu of “exploiting her status as the wife of the prime minister” and details how she and Ezra Saidoff, a former deputy director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, “worked together to circumvent the rules and restrictions in order to fraudulently obtain funding for the meals of Mrs. Netanyahu and her family at the expense of the public.”

Both Netanyahu and Saidoff deny any wrongdoing.

In the draft indictment, Mandelblidt says Sara Netanyahu and Saidoff tried to hide the fact that cooks were employed at the residence, in an attempt to justify the funding for the meals and the private chefs.

It was, the attorney general says, “a systematic thing,” and was done “deliberately to deceive the relevant persons at the prime minister’s residence.”

The indictments are pending hearings for both Sara Netanyahu and Saidoff.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, speaks at the Military Lawyers Conference, in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

After a long police investigation, Mandelblit announced in September that he intended to indict Sara Netanyahu for fraud for allegedly diverting a total of some NIS 360,000 ($102,000) in public funds for her own use.

The 16-page draft indictment for Sara Netanyahu details 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.

In the document published Wednesday, Mandelblit stopped short of accusing Netanyahu of forging invoices to ensure the meals were paid for by taxpayers. That, he alleged, was the sole responsibility of Saidoff.

“No evidentiery basis was found to prove that Sara Netanyahu was aware of the misrepresentation of meals cooked by chefs for private guests or of falsifying the invoices for these meals. Therefore, it was decided to close the file against Netanyahu in this case in the absence of sufficient evidence. In this matter, Saidoff will be tried alone.”

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

Mandelblit explains that his decision to charge the prime minister’s wife with fraud in aggravated circumstances was based on the size of the sums involved, the “planned, ongoing and systematic nature of the operation”; the misrepresentations; the way things were done at the highest levels in the prime minister’s official residence; the fact that public servants and other employees were forced to conceal information; and the fact that public funds were misappropriated.

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.

The document, however, details 15 cases in which Sara Netanyahu had chefs invited, despite the fact that six cooks were employed at the residence between April 2009 and April 2015, sometimes with more than one working at the same time.

Among the cases in which chefs were commissioned is an invitation to “L. and his wife, and their son and wife,” in January 2011, for a meal cooked by celebrity chef Shalom Kadosh at a cost to the public of NIS 4,500 shekels ($1,278).

Kadosh was the first Israeli to become a member of the “Club des Chefs des Chefs,” whose members cook for kings, queens and heads of state.

Chef Shalom Kadosh (center) poses with chefs of world leaders in Tel Aviv, February 2012. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

In April 2011, one Y. and his wife were treated at the residence to a meal cooked by Chef Lior Hafzadi of Jerusalem’s Lara bistro, and formerly of the famed Arcadia Restaurant, at a cost of NIS 2,088 ($593).

The document describes the way in which Sara Netanyahu personally directed Saidoff and maintenance staff at the residence concerning goods and services that she wanted the state to provide.

If the services or goods were not provided, or not to her satisfaction, Mrs. Netanyahu would “implore” Saidoff to see that her requests were carried out, even when Saidoff explained that public funding for the item could not be justified, Mandelblit writes. But in the end, Saidoff would concede, ensuring that the request was carried out “in an unlawful way.”

Mandelblit accuses Saidoff of instructing senior maintenance personnel at the residence and Mrs. Netanyahu’s secretaries to forge invoices for the meals by dividing the sums into more meals than were actually eaten or by spreading meals over several dates.

Both Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers Yossi Cohen and Amit Hadad and Saidoff’s lawyer Gadi Tal have denied the allegations and professed their clients’ innocence.

Mandelblit said in September that he had decided not to press charges against Sara Netanyahu in a number of other cases being investigated, among them the hiring of electrician Avi Fahima, a Likud Central Committee member. A committee charged with overseeing residence expenditures — and which included the Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser — ruled against the hiring of Fahima, but he was employed regardless.

Further suspicions not to be brought as charges relate to the use of state funds for purchasing furniture. The furniture was purportedly bought for the official residence in Jerusalem and then moved to the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea, while older furniture was taken back from Caesarea to the residence in Jerusalem.

The prime minister’s wife was also suspected of improper use of state funds for her late father’s medical care.

In all these cases, including a number of other instances involving potential fraudulent use of state funds for personal expenses, Mandelblit said there was not enough evidence to prove that Sara Netanyahu was aware of the efforts to avoid payments.

The decision to launch the investigation of Mrs. 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 Caesarea home.

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