Tel Aviv deputy mayor questioned in Bitan graft probe

Arnon Giladi says coalition whip had referred colleagues to him, denies kickbacks; Bitan’s aide named among detainees

Arnon Giladi, Tel Aviv's deputy mayor and chairman of the city's Likud branch. (Courtesy: Arnon Giladi)
Arnon Giladi, Tel Aviv's deputy mayor and chairman of the city's Likud branch. (Courtesy: Arnon Giladi)

Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor Arnon Giladi was interrogated Monday over his links with Likud MK David Bitan, the coalition chairman and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the center of an expanding graft probe.

In another development, Bitan’s driver and parliamentary aide, Shaul Haknaani, was named as a detainee in the probe. He was arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes.

The investigation, dubbed Case 1803, has seen at least 25 people arrested or questioned by police, including a dozen officials from the Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv municipalities.

Bitan is suspected of having taken bribes from crime organizations in Rishon Lezion after he became the deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion in 2015, and of diverting a tender toward the son of an acquaintance in exchange for money.

Giladi, 59, who chairs the Tel Aviv branch of the Likud Party as well as the Dan Region Association of Towns for Sewage and Environmental Issues (“Igudan”) was questioned on Monday for two hours by the Lahav 433 Serious Crimes Unit, it was revealed Tuesday.

Police were seeking to know whether Bitan — a friend of his for years — had asked him to help certain individuals, Giladi said.

The headquarters of the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in Lod. (Flash90)

“I explained to the investigators that in a small number of cases, Bitan referred people to me, just as other people refer me various individuals so that I can help them,” he said, according to the Maariv newspaper. “I help them as part of my job, all of which is to assist the public to cope with bureaucracy comfortably.”

Giladi insisted that he neither received, nor asked to receive, anything in return for helping Bitan’s associates.

“I operated with transparency and out of real love for the role and devotion to helping create a better and improved Tel Aviv,” he said.

Moshe Yosef, a businessman from Rishon LeZion and another associate of Bitan’s, has also been arrested, Hadashot news reported Tuesday, along with a 73-year-old member of the Jarushi crime family, Adnan, who is suspected of giving bribes to public figures, among them Bitan. Husam Jarushi is already in police custody.

Uri Bar Oz, Adnan Jaroushi’s defense lawyer, confirmed that as a public figure, his client had met several times with Bitan but also with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and several heads of police, including the incumbent, Roni Alscheich. Bar Oz denied Jaroushi had paid bribes.

Earlier on Tuesday, it was revealed that Bitan’s wife Hagit had been grilled for 10 hours on Sunday over suspected money-laundering and then released to house arrest at her sister’s home.

During her interrogation, Hagit Bitan was asked about a sum of more than NIS 1.5 million (roughly $430,000) deposited in her bank account around eight years ago. At the time, her husband’s bank account was under restrictions due to debts amounting to millions of shekels.

On Monday, investigators questioned Bitan for over 13 hours on suspicion of receiving bribes, fraud, money laundering, and breach of trust while serving as Rishon Lezion’s deputy mayor.

The questioning came hours after 17 Rishon Lezion city officials — among them Mayor Dov Zur — were arrested as part of the widening corruption probe.

MK David Bitan speaks to the media at the Israeli parliament on December 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hadashot news reported Monday that as deputy mayor, Bitan had accrued debts of some NIS 16 million ($4.6 million), leading to restrictions on his bank account. Bitan, who served in the post between 2005 and 2015, is suspected of paying back the money within two years through crooked deals. He is also suspected of receiving gifts and bribes after becoming a member of Knesset in 2015, the report said.

Bitan, who is set to be questioned again on Wednesday, took the unusual step on Tuesday of asking the court to allow him to break a deal he had signed not to leak information about the probe. He claimed that police had broken their side of the bargain by giving details to journalists, according to Hadashot news.

Bitan has said he will not resign from the Knesset or as head of the coalition.

The graft probe broke open just as Bitan, a key Netanyahu ally, was working to gather the votes for the final vote on a bill that would forbid police from issuing recommendations about indictments when they conclude an investigation into a high-profile personage. The Knesset legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, said Monday that Bitan and other lawmakers currently under police investigation may not vote on the police recommendation bill in committee due to a conflict of interest.

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