Zaken says Olmert’s driver brought her cash not to testify

Zaken was in Jerusalem District Court for the retrial of the Talansky Affair case.

November 4, 2014 07:08
Shula Zaken

Shula Zaken at Talansky Affair retrial where she testified against her former boss, Ehud Olmert. (photo credit: GIL YOCHANAN/POOL)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s “driver brought me money” so I “would not testify” against him, Shula Zaken, Olmert’s former powerful bureau chief, testified in court on Monday.

Zaken was in Jerusalem District Court for the retrial of the Talansky Affair case.

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The retrial after Olmert’s earlier conviction in the case came about in light of the allegedly damaging evidence revealed in audio tapes provided by Zaken, which were heard publicly for the first time on Monday.

While that accusation capped a line of hard-hitting allegations by Zaken against the man she spent most of her career viewing “like a god,” the prosecution’s central accusation in the Talansky Affair was that Olmert “knew everything, saw everything” regarding the alleged illegal use of funds from a secret safe kept for him by his confidant Uri Messer.

Those allegations could be a knife to the heart for Olmert, as his defense, which got him acquitted in a close decision in the original 2012 trial verdict, was that there was doubt as to whether the money from the safe was used for anything other than permitted political purposes and whether he knew what the funds were being used for.

The tapes of her conversations with Olmert could also damage his defense, since, while at times difficult to understand with music and commotion in the background, the recordings marked the start of a new level of legal difficulty – facing off against a confidante who knows all of his weak points.

Olmert’s legal team responded by attacking Zaken’s credibility, noting she admits to having received bribes and lying.

They said she had turned on Olmert to get a reduced jail sentence, and intend to further undermine her credibility and attacks on him in cross-examination that will kick into full gear on Thursday.

Zaken, whose day in court gave her a break from an 11-month prison sentence from the separate Holyland real estate corruption trial, spoke cynically of Olmert’s answers in the original Talansky Affair trial – a regular refrain of “I don’t know” regarding the funds.

She added that besides knowing the money was used to buy himself “cigars, nice ties” and for other personal expenses, as well as for her own personal expenses, he directed her not to testify in the Talansky Affair and about how to lie on his behalf in the Holyland trial.

Olmert’s retrial for the Talansky Affair started in September, in a return to the case that led to his resignation in 2008, but for which he was acquitted originally in July 2012.

In September, the state revealed there were 30 to 40 audio tapes, two of which were being used to prove the state’s case and an additional 10 of which were provided to the defense, though the state is not using them.

Judges Jacob Zaban and Moshe Sobel returned for the retrial, having been on the original trial panel, with Zaban leading the panel, while Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman joined the panel as the third judge.

Zaban seemed impatient with both sides’ lawyers and thoroughly unexcited by the prospect of a retrial of the issues, while Sobel spoke little and Friedman-Feldman did not say a word.

Friedman-Feldman replaces Judge Moussia Arad, who retired since the original verdict, highlighting how unusual the retrial is in terms of taking place so long after the original verdict.

The retrial comes as a result of a dramatic decision this summer by an expanded five-justice panel of the Supreme Court.

The Talansky Affair was the most serious of the three affairs that made up the original Jerusalem District Court trial (which also included the Rishon Tours Affair and the Investment Center Affair – neither of which is part of the retrial).

The state appealed the acquittal in the fall of 2012, but in May moved for a retrial in parallel when the tapes came to light. Should Olmert be convicted in the retrial of the Talansky Affair, he could have years added to his six-year Holyland sentence – which he has appealed.

The Talansky Affair involved Olmert allegedly receiving large amounts of cash in envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky between 1993 and 2005, not reporting them to the state comptroller, hiding them in his confidant Messer’s secret safe, and some of the money disappearing.

In return for the money, the indictment had alleged that Olmert assisted Talansky with various business transactions in 2004-2005, writing letters to American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Israeli business magnate Yitzhak Tshuva, and others on his behalf.

Since the retrial applies only to the Talansky Affair, the state’s appeal of his acquittal in the Rishon Tours affair is frozen pending the retrial.

In its July 2012 acquittal of Olmert, the Jerusalem District Court stated that, while his actions were problematic, there was doubt as to whether he believed his funds were being used for permitted political purposes or forbidden personal needs.

The court had also held that the letters Olmert sent for Talansky were mere introductory letters that did not prove any quid pro quo.

The tapes provided by Zaken came to light as part of a plea bargain that saw her receive a lenient 11-month prison sentence in the Holyland Affair, prompting the justices to order the retrial.

Zaken described a range of reasons for having taped Olmert, including wanting to hear his voice since they no longer worked together daily in the office, trying to remember his instructions about the legal cases, and keeping track of his promises to her, once she started to doubt that he had her best interests in mind.

On Monday, the state argued that the tapes – from May 2011 (just before Olmert started to testify on the Talansky Affair) and October 2012 (three months after the court acquitted him in the case) – show that Olmert used illegal means to pressure Zaken into refusing to testify and refusing to cooperate with the state.

In the dramatic moment when Zaken said that the pressuring her included indirectly getting her funds not only to pay for her legal fees, but also for her personal needs, Olmert’s lawyer objected, jumping up and saying that Zaken had not previously told this information to police. “This is a new story!” he said.

The state finally used Zaken’s testimony to try to justify putting into evidence her journal, which she said showed that the secret funds kept in the safe were far larger than discussed in the original trial, reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the original trial, the judges decided to ignore the journal since Zaken, as its author, had refused to testify and authenticate its contents.

On one of the tapes played by the state, Olmert could be heard, seemingly up-in-arms and furiously questioning Zaken about why she had kept a journal of the funds, saying “I don’t remember asking you to write it down,” and saying that she could have written it down ‘on “scrap paper,” implying something that would leave less of a paper trail.

In another passage from the tapes, Olmert is heard telling Zaken, “The moment that it comes from you” that I gave you “$30,000 or that I knew from you that [Holyland Affair state’s witness Shmuel] Duchner gave contributions, how will it be interpreted – that I am a partner to bribery, end of story.”

Olmert’s lawyers now have the tall order of convincing the court of interpretations of the new allegations, such as that funds given to Zaken personally were related to politics, as compensation for her political work beyond her regular duties, or possibly that Zaken manipulated his statements in the conversations.

The trial continues on Thursday and is likely to last at least through December and January, in order to cover Zaken’s testimony and Olmert’s and others’ counter-testimony attacking her narrative and trustworthiness.

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