Second top Netanyahu aide says police illegally searched his phone

Second top Netanyahu aide says police illegally searched his phone

Likud campaign manager Ofer Golan joins party spokesman Jonatan Urich in asserting investigators searched his phone without notifying him of his rights or produce a warrant

File: Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Ofer Golan, Likud campaign manager and Netanyahu family spokesman, arrives at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top political aides filed a formal complaint Tuesday alleging that police investigators overstepped their authority when they questioned him and searched his phone last week.

Ofer Golan, Netanyahu’s chief spokesman and Likud’s campaign manager, was questioned Thursday together with party spokesman Jonatan Urich on suspicion that the two harassed a state’s witness in a corruption case against Netanyahu.

The witness, Shlomo Filber, is himself a former top Netanyahu political aide who had been appointed by the prime minister as director-general of the Communications Ministry.

Filber is a key witness in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions in the Communications Ministry benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

Urich, Golan and two others are suspected of ordering a van sent to Filber’s home with loudspeakers blasting allegations he lied about the case.

File: Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich poses for a picture outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his Tuesday complaint to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Golan alleged that the police investigator who questioned him demanded he unlock his phone and hand it to her, without informing him he had the right to refuse the request, as she was required to do by law.

Golan said he complied, and then noticed the officer scrolling through WhatsApp text conversations that had no bearing on the witness tampering allegations.

The investigator was especially interested in his conversations with Netanyahu’s son Yair, who was also questioned as a suspect in the Case 4000 probe, Golan wrote in his complaint.

When he finally asked the investigator if she had a warrant to search his phone, she immediately returned it to his possession, he said.

Golan’s complaint follows a similar complaint filed Monday by Urich, who also claimed the investigator failed to inform him of his right to refuse to hand over his phone, and then read through conversations unrelated to the Filber investigation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem, September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Mandelblit confirmed part of Urich’s complaint on Monday. After examining recordings of the questioning, Mandelblit reportedly concluded that the investigating officer had indeed failed to inform Urich of his rights and to follow required procedure in obtaining access to the phone.

Mandelblit asked the Israel Police National Investigations Department to respond to the complaints.

In a video of the incident being probed, a vehicle bearing slogans of the Bratslav Hasidic sect can be seen parked near Filber’s home, with a voice saying: “Momo, be a man! Come out, tell the truth. Momo Filber, what did they do to you to get you to lie against the prime minister? What did they promise you? Momo, the left is using you to topple Likud! Listen to what you yourself said before police pressured you.”

A recording of Filber is then heard, saying: “There is no crime here. Where has this even come from? Everything I promoted was within my purview as director general [of the Communications Ministry].”

According to a Monday Channel 13 report, Urich told police that the initiative was a campaign stunt rather than an authentic effort to harass Filber, and said Netanyahu was not aware of the initiative.

In a tweet, the prime minister called the search of his aides’ phones “a terror attack against Israeli democracy and every citizen’s right to privacy.”

“We don’t live under a totalitarian regime and this is unacceptable,” he said. “The goal is to terrorize my immediate circle and thus deny me the ability to respond to the criminal flood of leaks that is targeting me nonstop.”

In a joint statement Monday afternoon, the police and Justice Ministry said the phones were confiscated “due to clear requirements of the investigation.” They said that the devices would not be opened or examined without specific court warrants allowing it, and limited only to contacts specified in such warrants.

Then-Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The state will request that, if possible, the judge will be the one to locate the materials, rather than investigators,” they said.

They stressed that any attempt to intimidate or harass witnesses was viewed severely, and particularly in the case of a state witness. “Law enforcement authorities will show no tolerance toward actions of this type,” they said.

But “due to the obvious sensitivity, the investigation is being conducted under the supervision of the most senior levels of the justice system.”

Netanyahu faces pending charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in Case 4000. He also faces fraud and breach of trust charges in two other cases. He denies any wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, Mandelblit held a pre-indictment hearing for the premier, having previously announced his intention to charge him in all three cases.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the annual Board of Governors’ meeting in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo with Elovitch that continued for about four years until early 2017. The alleged understanding saw Elovitch ensure favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest Hebrew-language news site, and critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods.

Mandelblit’s lengthy description of Netanyahu’s alleged illicit dealings with Elovitch took up the majority of a 57-page document released in February, in which the attorney general set out the allegations that prompted him to announce a pending criminal indictment against the prime minister.

The second case against the premier, Case 1000, involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

The third, Case 2000, revolves around accusations Netanyahu had reached an agreement with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a pro-Netanyahu rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In this case, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery, pending a hearing.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.

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