In legal triumph for State Attorney's Office, former PM Ehud Olmert, his bureau chief Shula Zaken and eight other defendants are found guilty of bribery charges • Prosecution: Justice has prevailed • Olmert's attorneys: This is not the end of things.
Zvi Harel, Israel Hayom Staff and News Agencies
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his ex-bureau chief Shula Zaken in court, Monday
Photo credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen
Photo credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted Monday of receiving bribes to facilitate the construction of the Holyland housing project in Jerusalem a decade ago.
Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen announced the verdict after denying the State Attorney's Office motion for a stay of verdict, which was filed after the prosecution had signed a plea bargain with Shula Zaken, Olmert's former bureau chief, to secure her testimony against him.
The court acknowledged the state's deal with Zaken, convicting her of two counts of accepting bribes. As part of the deal, Zaken is supposed to serve an 11-month jail sentence, but the judge made no mention as to whether he plans to sign off on the sentencing recommendation.
Rozen ruled, unequivocally, that Olmert had perjured himself in court and that "it was clear that Olmert bought Zaken's silence."
"It was also very clear throughout the trial that Mrs. Zaken was willing to sacrifices herself for Olmert, who knew it and took advantage of it. Mrs. Zaken remained silent and has paid the price," Rozen said.
The judge criticized Zaken's "eagerness to do Olmert's bidding," adding that her testimony was "skewed and problematic" and that she was a "knowing and willing participant" in the various illicit transactions to which Olmert was party.
Rozen further dismissed Olmert's assertions throughout the trial -- that he never had any knowledge of any wrongdoing by those involved in the Holyland housing project -- as "implausible," given the scope of the payments and corrupt practices revealed during the trial.
"The defendant's entire line of defense is implausible," Rozen said of Olmert.
The Holyland case, one of the gravest corruption trials ever held against a public official in Israel, saw 13 defendants face various bribery charges. Of the 13, three -- Yaakov Efrati, former head of the Israel Land Administration, and developers Amnon Safran and Shimon Galon -- were found not guilty on the basis of reasonable doubt.
Other than Olmert and Zaken, the court also found the eight other defendants in the case – former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, his deputy Eliezer Simhayof, former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit, former Bank Hapoalim chairman Danny Dankner, developers Hillel Cherny and Avigdor Kelner, and businessmen Meir Rabin and Avraham Penner -- guilty of offering and receiving bribes, and money laundering.
According to Israeli law, a bribery conviction carries a mandatory prison sentence of between three and seven years, depending on the circumstances of the case. Rozen allowed the parties 45 days to appeal the conviction.
Moreover, a bribery conviction carries with it moral turpitude, which according to legal experts effectively spells the end of Olmert's political career -- unless the verdict is overturned on appeal.
The ruling, which stretches across 700 pages, marks a legal triumph for the State Attorney's Office, which saw two previous corruption cases against Olmert, the first involving alleged payoffs by American businessmen Morris Talansky and the second alleging double billing of travel expenses by his bureau, crumble.
The verdict in the Holyland case is expected to have a significant impact on the appeals filed in both cases.
Commenting on the testimony of developer-turned-state's witness Shmuel Dechner, Rozen noted, "The witness' testimony was pivotal to the trial as it illustrated the ways and means by which the bribery practices were carried out.
"The witness shed light on a system of government that has been rotting away for years. Despite being very ill, it was clear that Dechner was making extraordinary efforts to testify in a clear manner. While the fact that this was a lacking testimony cannot be ignored, it also cannot be used to set this testimony aside altogether," the judge said. Dechner died in 2013 before he was cross-examined by the defense.
The sentencing phase of the trial is set to begin on April 28. The state has asked the court to issue an order preventing the defendants from leaving Israel prior to the conclusion of the proceedings.
'A resounding wake-up call'
"We will study the ruling and the relevant material before deciding on our next move," Tel Aviv District Prosecution's Financial Crime Division head Liat Ben-Ari, who together with attorney Yonatan Tadmor served as the state's lead prosecutor in the Holyland case, told Channel 10.
Commenting on the plea bargain struck with Zaken, she said: "The material we have in our possession is very unusual and it made us believe that it was in the public's best interest that we consider making this deal. It is not very often that we are able to obtain such material, such evidence, and that is why we agreed to the deal. The court may not sanction the deal, and that would be okay -- we'll accept that and work from there."
The State Attorney's Office "has been sparing no efforts through the years to fight corruption, especially among public officials. When this case came across our desks four years ago we thought it was fictional, but today it has turned out to be the truth and the whole truth. That's what we fought for, so see the truth come out and justice prevail," she said.
"Fighting corruption is a relentless struggle. Today, the judge ruled that this case was not based on fiction but on hair-raising fact," Tadmor said. "Anyone contemplating acts of bribery should know that the police and the State Attorney's Office will spare no efforts to uncover such wrongdoing."
Olmert's attorney, Roy Blecher, told reporters outside the courtroom that the defense teams plans to study the ruling. He did not confirm whether the former prime minister would pursue an appeal but noted that Dechner's not having been cross-examined could be used as ground for one.
Olmert's communications adviser, Amir Dan, told reporters, "This is a difficult day. We have nothing but respect for the court, and you must remember that the court did exonerate Olmert from two other counts. This trial was based on the testimony of a state's witness branded by this very court as a liar. We were unable to cross-examine him. We will study the ruling and this is not the end of it."
Following the ruling, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel issued a statement saying: "We are stunned by the conviction of a former prime minister in such a far-reaching corruption case, and one that has uncovered how deeply corrupt some systems of government were. This is a resounding wake-up call for all those entrusted with fighting corruption and dishonesty in the civil service, which as we have seen today reach even its highest levels. This is a sad day, which offers only a sliver of hope for a better future."
MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) said, "This is an important day for the rule of law and the efforts to wipe clean the filth and corruption that Ehud Olmert infected top government officials with. Olmert is a repeat offender who had, for decades, abused his power to get rich, and he repeatedly got away with it while unfortunately making his way to the highest office in the land.
"It pains me that such a corrupt individual ruled our lives, but today, the Israeli public can be proud that despite the money and power used to influence law enforcement, we are a clean democracy."
The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel also commented on the verdict: "The breadth of fraud, bribery and corruption of the public sector that have been revealed by this case sets a new record in an era in which corrupt leeches have turned the state and the executive authority into a tool made to yield them personal profits at the public's expense. A day in which a former prime minister is convicted is an important day for the fight against corruption. Every public servant should learn a lesson from this before trying to abuse the public's assets."
Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On said in a statement, "Judge Rozen did not fall for the media spins by Olmert and his cronies and has found the most corrupt and corruptive politician in the history of this country guilty of accepting bribes. Judge Rozen has peeled away this web of lies and had determined that 'Olmert has lied to the court.'
"This conviction bolsters the rule of law and signals to all the associates, spin doctors and public relations people that even political leaders are not above the law," she said. "It signals to public officials who lie, cheat and take bribes that corrupt leaders taint not only their own image but that of politics as a whole, and I welcome the court's coming to its defense."