Olmert: Trial to prove my innocence

But prosecutors confident on first day of testimony in former PM's trial.

February 26, 2010 02:16
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert talks to the pre

olmert at court 311 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday – the opening day of testimony in his trial – that from now on, the facts would speak and that he expected to emerge from the affair as an innocent man.

“A few months ago, I arrived here as a person innocent of any crime,” Olmert said in a personal statement to reporters at the Jerusalem District Court. “Today, the chapter of bombastic declarations, vivid descriptions and personal attacks, which were part of the climate among the public during the past two years, comes to an end. We are now in court. The facts will be clarified here.

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“Here we will hear what I know and believe. I am certain that the outcome at the end of the process will be to confirm what I told you at its beginning.”

The trial began with an opening statement by Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel, who provided the court with a survey of the charges against Olmert and his longtime aide, Shula Zaken, and described some of the evidence the state claims to have uncovered.

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Unlike what Justice Ministry sources had said before the trial, Abarbanel focused primarily on the charges involving New York businessman Morris Talansky and gave less attention to those involving the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s Investment Center.

Talansky, said Abarbanel, had transferred a total of $600,000 to Olmert during the years of their association.

The state first learned about the extent of the financial connection between the US businessman and the Israeli politician from Talansky himself. And although Talansky, an elderly man, sometimes got his events confused, had difficulty providing an orderly progression, often spoke in hyperboles and had been involved in the illegal transfers himself and therefore was not entirely innocent, his testimony was still based on “solid foundations,” Abarbanel maintained.

On the contrary, the prosecutor continued, because of Talansky’s own involvement in the case, the state assumed he had played down his financial relations with Olmert.

Furthermore, said Abarbanel, despite attempts by the defense to portray him as such, Talansky was not Olmert’s enemy; he had not had a falling-out with the former prime minister and was not looking for revenge.

In addition, some of the statements Talansky made had been confirmed by the defense itself, he said. For example, the state acknowledged that Talansky had transferred $140,000 to Olmert.

Abarbanel said that when the police first questioned Talansky, they had known very little about his relationship with Olmert. It was through Talansky that they had learned about the alleged transfer of $300,000, made to cover the Jerusalem mayoral election debts for which Olmert was personally responsible.

Abarbanel added, however, that during the trial, the prosecution would concentrate on those sums of money regarding which the evidence was clear, including a transfer of $72,000 to Olmert, a payment of $15,000 to him in New York and the transfer of cash-filled envelopes that Talansky gave Olmert directly or through Zaken.

These transfers were recorded in the allegedly secret computerized “diary” that Zaken kept to document every transfer of money from Talansky, as well as the internal transfers to Olmert’s close friend, attorney Uri Messer, who kept a large part of it in a secret “fund” – first in his office safe and later in the bank. The transfers were recorded either explicitly or by code, said Abarbanel.

“The diary was authentic,” he told the court. “The entries were recorded in real time without any attempt to twist the facts for reasons of self-interest.”

The fact is, he continued, that throughout her interrogations by police, Zaken refused to answer questions about the diary.

Furthermore, many of the transfers she recorded were confirmed in the testimony of Talansky and Messer, Abarbanel added.

In his first police interrogation, Olmert acknowledged only receiving money from Talansky in election campaign contributions, without admitting to the $300,000 the state accuses Olmert of receiving from Talansky to cover his campaign debt. Only in the second interrogation did Olmert acknowledge receiving the envelopes of cash and money for a hotel stay in Washington.

Olmert did not report the funds he had received to the State Comptroller – a measure required according to the Asher Committee, which established rules for preventing conflicts of interest among ministers and deputy ministers that have been in force since 1978.

“He brutally disregarded the rules by failing to report these significant sums of money,” charged Abarbanel.

This was particularly grave, considering that he was a very senior cabinet minister holding an economic portfolio.

“Why would someone like him take money from a businessman?” Abarbanel asked.

In doing so, he said, it was clear that there was the potential for bribery. And the fact was that Olmert had written letters to three businessmen asking them to meet with “his dear and close friend” Talansky, who was trying to market a refrigerator for hotel rooms that automatically registered each time a guest took a beverage or candy from the fridge.

The letters asking these businessmen, including Sheldon Adelson and Yitzhak Teshuva, to receive Talansky were written on ministry stationary. The letter to Adelson was written on November 17, 2005. Six days later, Talansky gave Olmert $15,000.

Abarbanel said the state was not charging Olmert with accepting a bribe from Talansky. However, by accepting gifts from him, Olmert was creating the potential for bribery. This, Abarbanel said, was enough to give added severity to the charge of fraud and breach of trust with which Olmert was being charged.

Abarbanel added that Messer would also testify on the matter of Talansky’s money. He had kept large sums of it for Olmert, including at one time some $350,000.

No one could claim that Messer was out to get Olmert, Abarbanel continued. The two were close friends and associates, and Messer had been reluctant to answer questions during his interrogation by police. In fact, said Abarbanel, almost all the state’s witnesses were testifying against Olmert reluctantly.

In a brief response to Abarbanel’s survey, Olmert’s chief counsel, Eli Zohar, said that the state had explained its desire to take pre-trial testimony on the grounds that Olmert was suspected of “extremely serious crimes.”

After hearing Talansky, the state charged him with fraud and breach of trust – in other words, not an extremely serious crime. Furthermore, said Zohar, he hoped this charge would also be disproved. If that happened, all that would be left of Talansky’s pre-trial testimony was that it had led to the dismissal of the prime minister.

Zohar also denied the charges against Olmert with regard to the Investment Center and Rishon Tours.

“It is hard to overcome the harsh sense of imbalance between the initial investigation and the forcefulness of the measures taken in that context, and the quality of the charges we ended up with at the end of the process,” he told the court.

Zaken’s attorney, Micha Fetman, said Zaken was not involved in any of the charges the state had leveled at Olmert. She did not receive benefits from Talansky and was not required to report anything to the State Comptroller.

“Everyone wants to know what Shula Zaken is doing here in the first place,” Fetman said.

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