(photo credit: AP)
The Holyland affair has been described by law enforcement officials as the worst case of corruption in the country’s history. But according to senior police officials, despite its allegedly mammoth proportions, it is by no means unique.
Since 2007, police have launched 160 investigations into the activities of elected officials, most of them at the local government level. Most investigations stemmed from tip-offs, police complaints or, as in the case of Holyland, cooperation from marginal suspects who turned state’s witness.
Police have identified planning and construction committees in municipalities and regional councils as the vulnerable points in the system, with their ability to grant or deny hugely profitable construction permits proving irresistible to property developers willing to bend the rules with illicit offers of cash and elected officials who take the bait.
And lurking just in the background is the murky presence of organized crime, police say.
If police suspicions that land developers paid large bribes to officials within the Jerusalem Municipality in exchange for approval for an enormous housing development in the Malha neighborhood are proven in court, it will mean that corruption seeped so deep that the entire process of local government in the capital was compromised.
The Holyland investigation has in turn uncovered other alleged bribery scams involving the Israel Lands Administration and leading businessmen keen to make enormous profits from real estate developments, leading to the arrests on Wednesday of former ILA head Ya’acov Efrati and former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner.
Members of the public attempting to follow the web of elected officials’ greed, and to follow the equally complicated web of senior businessmen willing to pay large amounts of cash to ensure that their real estate developments are approved, have this week likely begun to sense that the Holyland investigation is part of a widespread phenomenon of foul play, and that an avalanche of investigations into corruption within local government is in store.
DOZENS OF municipalities and regional councils have become the target of police investigations in recent years.
Last week, real estate developer David Appel was convicted of giving bribes to advance his real estate projects, and former Lod mayor Benny Regev was convicted of accepting them.
In 2009 alone, police arrested Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani and detained Gilboa Regional Council head Danny Atar on suspicions of fraud and violation of public office, and former Tel Aviv deputy mayor Natan Wallach was convicted of three counts of violation of public office and giving false information to authorities. Wallach admitted to illegally obtaining a visa for young Moldovan woman as a favor to the late businessman Reuven Gross.
In Rehovot, former mayor Shuki Forer was forced to step down by the High Court after being indicted on charges that he allowed a contractor to pay him NIS 80,000 to cover a personal debt he built up during an election campaign. And former Sderot mayor Eli Moyal is suspected by police of election bribery offenses.
Kiryat Yam Mayor Shmuel Sisan was questioned under caution by police in January over allegations that he and a number of accomplices acted improperly in arranging for a company to win a tender allowing them to purchase beach property.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch appeared to confirm the sense that overwhelming levels of corruption had infected local government this week, declaring at a police awards ceremony that Holyland “is only the tip of the iceberg.” He assured the nation that law enforcement was up to the task of cleaning out the rot. While senior police officials would agree, they would also point out that the police’s budget is almost impossibly tight, and that financial restrictions form the most significant hurdle to the war on corruption.
The National Fraud Unit has prioritized the Holyland affair above all investigations, and more than 100 detectives and investigators have been put on the case, meaning that other probes have been placed on hold.
Other units, such as Lahav 433 and the National Serious and International Crimes Unit, have been working hard to expose similar cases. And the Tax Authority has assembled task forces of investigative accountants to follow the trail of dirty money; such investigators are crucial in any modern police investigation into corruption.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, police are also enjoying a number of advantages that investigators did not have until recently.
Cmdr. (ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, former head of the Investigations Branch, headed the 2003 investigation which led to the conviction of Appel and Regev last week, and was ejected from the force in 2004 by public security minister Gideon Ezra for eavesdropping on calls of senior politicians whom he suspected were also on Appel’s illicit payroll.
Mizrahi told The Jerusalem Post
last week that one
factor working in favor of the police is the change in public
atmosphere toward corruption, adding that during his time, the legal
system would routinely throw out corruption cases and free suspects in
affairs which today would likely have ended up with prosecutions.
“Today, there is public support, and support from the legal system for
police investigating corruption. The level of corruption has led to a
zero tolerance approach,” he said.
Two years after a serving prime minister was forced to resign his
office in 2008 (when Ehud Olmert stepped down after being indicted on
three separate corruption charges), police are haunted by the fear that
the corruption which is so rampant within local government will
continue to threaten the national government as well.