Special report blasts Netanyahu for 'Bibi Tours Affair'

Attorney General, Comptroller fight over need for criminal probe.

May 24, 2016 09:19

Netanyahu and Shapira. (photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on Tuesday took a hard shot at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, blasting him in his annual report for his conduct in a multiyear saga that has come to be known as the “Bibi Tours” affair.

Of all the controversies surrounding the prime minister in recent years, this one has haunted him the longest, with analysts still wondering whether he will face a full criminal probe.

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The comptroller’s allegations of problematic conduct concern possible double billing, the use of state-owned frequent flier mileage for personal flights, deficiencies in the process by which the government approved ministers’ overseas travel requests, as well as other issues. It relates to Netanyahu’s time as finance minister, from March 2003 to August 2005.

Some of the points in the report that stand out the most include $50,000 worth of flights for Sara Netanyahu that were paid for by foreign businessmen and groups without appropriate accounting and approvals. There are similar allegations regarding flights for the Netanyahus’ sons.

In addition, the report says that Netanyahu used public funds for a personal trip, and that Yechiel Leiter, his chief of staff at the Finance Ministry, fronted personal costs for him. The report also notes that in October 2004, the Netanyahus stayed at expensive locations in the US and on the French Riviera at least partially at the expense of Israel Bonds, for $4,270 and 4,133 euros.

Netanyahu has vehemently denied that the allegations amount to anything problematic, let alone anything criminal. It remains unclear whether his conduct will lead to any kind of criminal investigation, though Knesset State Control Committee chairwoman Karin Elharar said on Tuesday that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit would update the panel in the very near future.

Shapira was at loggerheads with then-attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein for closing an initial probe of the matter in September 2014 without a full criminal investigation. Weinstein explained after an initial review that “at the end of the day, in light of the balance of the evidence collected, it could not be found that there was a basis to open a full criminal investigation” of the prime minister.

That review focused on a limited number of accusations of double-billing for reimbursements and forged receipts, such as for an August 2006 flight to London and a September 2006 flight to New York.

Weinstein accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that the London flight only appeared to be a case of double- billing because, for practical expediency, Sara’s flight had been marked as paid for by the same source that paid for his own flight when, in reality, it had been paid for by a separate source.

The New York flight had two sets of reimbursement documents because the same organization had two different names, and the first reimbursement documents were canceled when the group asked for the papers to be redone.

However, that was not the end of the matter, and Shapira decided to keep digging on his own. He passed on new findings to the Attorney-General’s Office in May and December 2015.

More recently, Shapira requested that Mandelblit, attorney-general as of February, decide whether to criminally probe alleged double-funding, deviations in financing and problems with transparency in El Al’s records regarding the Netanyahu family’s use of state-owned bonus miles for personal travel.

The comptroller’s report issued on Tuesday stops short of demanding such a criminal investigation, but Shapira makes it clear that he has brought new evidence to Mandelblit’s attention and heavily hints throughout that only a full criminal probe would clear the cloud of impropriety. Reportedly, Shapira suspects Mandelblit of dragging his feet on the issue, as he believes Weinstein did.

The report explicitly notes that it leaves out aspects of other serious potential criminal charges, some of which go both earlier and later than the 2003-2005 time frame, since it expects Mandelblit to be reviewing them.

At the outset, the report summary notes that the issues came up because at first glance, Netanyahu’s travels “departed from the rules that apply to the issue.”

The comptroller writes that, like other ministers at the time, Netanyahu never consulted with the committee that oversees gifts for public servants about whether the receipt of funding for travel, especially from private sector sources, might constitute an illegal gift or benefit. All that was submitted were requests for approval from the government to take the trips.

No details about the trips, including their purpose, family members coming along or funding sources were provided.

This could create the impression of conflicts of interest or other violations, including whether any of the funding was illegal or not.

In any event, Shapira wrote that going forward, before accepting an offer to be flown somewhere, ministers should submit the details of who is financing the trips to make sure there is no violation.

In discussing the broader issue with the comptroller at a personal hearing in January, Netanyahu took the position that flights financed by a foreign organization were not the same as those financed by a private individual, even if an individual was the one laying out the funds. According to this approach, fewer details for approval would have been required because there was no special concern that a minister would do something in return for the individual who paid.

As finance minister, Netanyahu took 15 trips overseas, all defined as within his role as a minister. Seven of the trips were paid for by the state; the remaining eight were paid for by outside funders. One-and-a-half flights were paid for by foreign governments, two by Jewish organizations, threeand- a-half by Israel Bonds, and one by another international organization.

Regarding Sara Netanyahu’s flights being funded by non-government sources to the tune of $50,000, the comptroller said the amounts were far too high, especially where she, unlike her husband, was not contributing to any government-related function.

Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying it was accepted custom for spouses to accompany ministers to various functions, and that this was doubly true when it came to the wife of a former prime minister. Netanyahu served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999.

One case the comptroller found particularly disturbing regarded Leiter, who used his personal credit card in July 2005 to pay $2,280, covering travel costs to Britain for Netanyahu and his two sons. Israel Bonds and a businessman identified only as “Businessman B” financed flights and hotel expenses for Netanyahu’s sons on a January 2005 trip to the US and England.

In September 2011, Leiter told a representative of the comptroller that he did not remember the matter and was “very surprised because of the large sum.” In August 2015, Leiter confirmed in writing that he had used his credit card to pay for the flights, but had been reimbursed by Netanyahu.

In January 2016, when Shapira personally questioned Netanyahu, he replied that every time Leiter paid for him, he had been reimbursed.

A lawyer for Netanyahu also explained that the then-finance minister did not act on behalf of any of the businessmen who funded his trips, and that in most cases, the businessmen were paying on behalf of an organization, which was the true funder.

The report issued on Tuesday also criticizes Netanyahu for poor record-keeping regarding who funded the flights for his security detail during these trips.

A statement sent out on behalf of the Netanyahus referred to the allegations as a “mountain that turned out to be a molehill” and claimed that the prime minister’s critics were trying to hold him to a higher standard than others.

It added that Netanyahu’s travels involved “no conflicts of interest, no double-billing and nothing illegal.”

The statement added that Shapira found Netanyahu had conducted himself the same way other ministers did at a time three years prior to more solid rules being established about ministerial travels in 2008. Further, it emphasized that Weinstein had closed the file.

“We are convinced that the same will happen with the new materials sent to him in 2015,” the statement said. a criminal probe to date.

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