The six-year jail sentence received by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week has been hailed as a great victory in the war on corruption, a sentence sure to deter other officials. Former Tel Aviv District Court Judge Amnon Straschnov begs to differ.
Writing in Israel Hayom
, Straschnov offered three reasons
why he fears Olmert’s bribery sentence won’t prove an effective deterrent. First, studies show the likelihood of getting caught is far more important in deterring criminals than the magnitude of the sentence. Second, corrupt politicians keep right on getting elected. And third, “there is no public or social denunciation of white-collar crimes”: Whereas rapists and murderers are shunned, white-collar criminals remain welcome in society, the media and even public office.
In other words, as long as a white-collar criminal avoids jail, he has nothing to fear from his crime being discovered: Investigation, indictment and conviction will affect neither his social life nor his job prospects. And even if he goes to jail, once he’s out, he’ll be welcomed back into society, the media, the job market and public life. As proof, Straschnov cited two jailed former MKs, Aryeh Deri and Shmuel Flatto-Sharon. Deri subsequently returned to the Knesset as Shas party chairman and will likely be a minister next time Shas enters the government, while Flatto-Sharon acquired his own radio show, broadcast on several different stations
Straschnov’s analysis is a bit too pessimistic. But it contains enough truth to be deeply worrying.
Regarding the likelihood of conviction, the trend isn’t necessarily unpromising: There have been several high-profile corruption convictions in recent years, including Olmert’s bribery conviction, Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani’s plea bargain
earlier this month, former minister Shlomo Benizri’s bribery conviction
in 2008 and former minister Abraham Hirchson’s embezzlement conviction
in 2009. Granted, Olmert’s 2012 acquittal in another bribery case – despite the court’s finding that he received hundreds of thousands of unreported dollars in cash-filled envelopes – was a severe blow. But that verdict may well be overturned on appeal: Aside from its inherent legal absurdity, prosecutors now have new evidence from Olmert’s former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, who agreed to sing last week in exchange for leniency in the current bribery case.
Moreover, Straschnov underestimates the deterrent effect of jail time. Granted, the threat of prison is irrelevant as long as criminals believe they either won’t get caught or can beat the rap. But if convictions become common enough that white-collar criminals are forced to consider getting caught, jail is a serious deterrent: It’s a major comedown from their previous luxurious lifestyles.
The problem, however, is that any sentence short of prison results in white-collar criminals essentially suffering no consequences at all. And that’s not a problem the legal system can fix.
First, as Straschnov noted, corrupt politicians keep being reelected. He blames the voters and the media, but the true culprit, as I’ve written before
, is the electoral system: Since voters elect party slates rather than individuals, they can’t oust a corrupt politico without dumping his entire party, which most voters won’t do. Granted, voters sometimes reelect corrupt politicians even when candidates are elected directly, as in mayoral races. But in national elections, they don’t even have the option of ousting individual politicians – a problem only electoral reform can solve.
Even worse, however, is that corrupt officials suffer no other public consequences either. And nothing illustrates this better than Olmert himself.
Back in July 2012, the same court that acquitted him of bribery actually convicted him of using his position as industry minister to funnel government grants to companies represented by a friend, attorney Uri Messer – aka Olmert’s “banker,” who stored the cash-stuffed envelopes until Olmert needed the money. In short, the court found unequivocally that Olmert received huge under-the-table donations (from another businessman), then doled out government funds to clients of the attorney who managed this illicit cash. True, it didn’t sentence him to jail. But its findings alone should have put Olmert beyond the pale.
Moreover, his every pronouncement at these forums won media headlines, and media outlets interviewed him regularly. Prominent journalists like former Haaretz
editor-in-chief David Landau even published columns
begging him to run for reelection.
Olmert also became chairman
of a venture capital fund and sat on other corporate boards, and recently formed a consulting firm
with two other prominent former officials, ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. In short, his conviction didn’t make a dent in either his public stature or his earning capability.
Nor is Olmert unique. For another example, consider MK Tzachi Hanegbi. Aside from setting a record for political appointments – as a minister, he gave taxpayer-funded jobs to dozens of party hacks, for which he narrowly escaped criminal conviction – he was actually convicted of perjury
in 2010. Nor could his perjury be considered an aberration: Earlier, as justice minister in 1997, he lied to the cabinet to secure Roni Bar-On’s appointment as attorney general (part of a larger scandal
that never went to court, but resulted in Bar-On resigning after just one day). Yet not only is Hanegbi’s political career still going strong (he currently chairs the prestigious Knesset House Committee and will soon become deputy foreign minister), he is even regularly lauded in the media
as a “responsible adult.”
Thus on this issue, Straschnov is absolutely right: We will never succeed in stamping out corruption until corrupt officials are shunned rather than lionized by their own social milieu – the journalists, academics, businessmen, defense officials, jurists, politicians and senior civil servants who constitute Israel’s elite. For as long as officials know corruption entails no social, professional or financial costs, they will have very little incentive to avoid it.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.