(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In what law enforcement sources describe as an unprecedented real estate bribery scam, the Israel Police have arrested five people, including attorney Uri Messer, a former close associate of ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
According to investigators, land developers allegedly paid large bribes to public officials to gain approval for projects built by the Holyland real estate company in Jerusalem and associated development projects in the North.
Related: Uri Messer is the link
Inside lavish Holyland, marble floors and flowing fountains
A comprehensive media ban on the investigation was partially lifted by the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday, allowing for some details of the affair to be publicized, though others remain under wraps.
According to police suspicions, between 1999 and 2008, the Holyland company and other land development companies, then owned by businessman Hillel Charni, paid tens of millions of shekels in bribes to senior decision-makers.
In one major alleged scam, key members of the Jerusalem Municipality, including members of its planning and construction committee, received large sums in exchange for their approval for the Holyland housing project, which towers above the city’s Malha neighborhood.
Bribes allegedly bought approval for additional units to be built at the site, with the enlarged Holyland development receiving final approval in 1999.
During a lengthy remand hearing for the suspects on Tuesday evening, Rishon Lezion Magistrate Judge Avraham Haiman described the affair as “one of the most severe instances of public corruption in Israel’s history, which will send shock waves throughout the country and which has caused irreversible damage to the public interest.”
Haiman described the Holyland towers as a “monstrosity,” a sentiment with which many Jerusalemites would agree.
The investigation is being led by the police’s National Fraud Unit and the Lahav 433, and ended its undercover phase on Tuesday morning, when officers arrested Messer, Charni and three additional suspects.
Police raided the Jerusalem Municipality on Tuesday, though the search was reportedly coordinated with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Officers also raided the offices of the Polar Investment company, which actually built the Holyland Park complex. Polar, based in Tel Aviv, is currently managed by Uri Shani, who once headed the office of prime minister Ariel Sharon. Shani became the manager of Polar in October 2009, several years after the company had built the six 30-story residential towers at the Holyland site.
Police believe bribes were also given by Charni in exchange for approval to build the Tzuk Manara development project in the Galilee between 2003 and 2006. A third suspected bribery scam involves the Zera company, also owned by Charni.
Charni is suspected of bribing officials within the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Lands Administration, and the Investment Center of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry to get approval for his projects. Police say Charni made an enormous profit when he subsequently sold Holyland in 2008.
Messer is suspected of acting as the intermediary who transferred the bribes, allegedly totalling hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash, to public officials to obtain the planning approvals.
He is also suspected of forging receipts and falsely billing individuals for legal advice as a way of covering up his activities.
Real estate developer Meir Rabin, also arrested on Tuesday, was named as an intermediary in the alleged bribery ring. Police say he promoted Holyland projects and passed on tens of millions of shekels in bribes to decision-makers in the Jerusalem Municipality. Police suspect he played a central role.
Uri Sheetrit, Jerusalem’s former city engineer, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion that he dropped his initial opposition to the Holyland project and became a supporter after receiving very large bribes. Police say Sheetrit enabled Charni to save millions by cutting through the bureaucracy, and also helped him earn large sums by increasing the number of units he could build at the site.
Sheetrit is also accused of attempting to cover his tracks by producing
false receipts to account for the bribes, and of laundering the bribery
cash he received.
Eliyahu Hasson, an accountant for Holyland, is
suspected of transferring bribes to officials and forging documents
while attempting to hide evidence of his alleged involvement.
Judge Haiman extended the remand of four of the suspects until April 13, and extended Messer’s until April 11.
Golan, an attorney for Messer, said Wednesday that his client had been
questioned repeatedly about these suspicions over the past two