Police question Sara Netanyahu under caution

Questioning of PM's wife related to ongoing criminal investigation into the Prime Minister’s Residence Affair.

December 31, 2015 16:52
3 minute read.
Benjamin and Sara Netanyah

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport. (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)

Sara Netanyahu, the premier’s wife, was questioned by police on Thursday in connection with the ongoing criminal investigation into the Prime Minister’s Residence Affair.

The questioning started at 4 p.m. and other than a short break, was continuing intensely at press time, with more details expected to break on Friday.

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Despite the very public questioning, the Justice Ministry has practically ignored the event, putting out no announcements to confirm that Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein had approved opening a criminal investigation against Mrs. Netanyahu, though the questioning could not have occurred without that approval.

The affair deals with a series of smaller investigations such as the so-called Bottlegate, Furniture Gate and Electrician Gate cases that deal with allegations of misuse of state funds in the management of the residence, for the personal gain of the Netanyahu family.

There is also the most recent issue, concerning allegations that Sara Netanyahu used public funds for her father’s medical care while he was in the residence.

The investigation had focused so far on Ezra Seidoff, one of the top deputies in the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been cleared of suspicion in the case.

Bottlegate refers to allegations that Sara Netanyahu may have improperly turned in deposit bottles in exchange for NIS 4,000 cash, though the bottles were bought with state funds. In February, The Jerusalem Post surveyed a range of experts, none of whom believed Bottlegate could possibly carry criminal charges, and it does seem further off the radar now, though it was the first of the so-called affairs that broke into the news.

Furniture Gate refers to accusations of purchasing furniture with state funds for the prime minister’s private residence in Caesarea. According to the allegations, the furniture was nominally purchased for the official public residence, but then Mrs. Netanyahu moved the new items to the couple’s private Caesarea residence, while replacing it at the public residence with older ones.

Electrician Gate refers to the Prime Minister’s Residence using an outside contractor for electrical problems in order to get around limits on the state budget covering the residence’s electricity costs.

February’s State Comptroller’s Report goes so far as to say that hiring the private contractor, Avi Fahima, involved “misleading representations.”

Fahima had been disqualified from working on the Netanyahus’ electrical systems on the state’s dime because of his prior relationship with them, yet he ended up performing the work under the guise of working for another contractor.

Reports about Netanyahu’s alleged use of state funds for her father’s medical care have only recently been raised, so less is known about those allegations.

She is expected to say that she used private funds for any issue where use of public funds would be controversial and that while she was involved in managing Fahima prior to her husband’s reelection as prime minister last March, that she was not involved in managing him post-reelection.

One challenge she may have is explaining away Seidoff’s statements that he coordinated all of his decisions with her regarding the residence.

In the February State Comptroller’s Report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said that electricity use was so high at the Prime Minister’s Residence, that over a certain three-month period, it cost 70 percent of the electricity budget for the year.

Next, the report said that the outside electrician was called for service nearly every weekend over a multi-month period, including on Yom Kippur.

Shapira said that since Sara Netanyahu or her staff had ordered the electrician to come directly, there was less paperwork on which to judge if the issues could have waited until the work week for regular staff to fix them, saving state funds.

The investigation is a spinoff of a civil lawsuit by former house manager of the Prime Minister’s Residence Meni Naftali and started to move forward following the special and dramatic State Comptroller Report in February, shortly before the March 17 election.

In the report, Shapira said that the Netanyahu family’s use of funds raised criminal suspicions and was certainly an ethical violation.

When the report came out, there were fears in the Netanyahu camp that it could hurt his electoral support, but ultimately he won a resounding victory and a fourth term in office.

Last week, Sara Netanyahu’s lawyer Jacob Weinroth told media outlets that Weinstein had refused to meet with him to hear his arguments about whether or not the attorney- general should open an investigation against her.

Weinstein responded that he was happy to receive written arguments, but that he had no need for an in-person meeting with the attorney.

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