‘Rishon Tours reimbursed fees instead of Olmert’

Travel agency covered extra expenses while barred from arranging int'l flights.

June 2, 2010 08:05
3 minute read.
Olmert, smug, with white on the sides

Olmert, smug, with white on the sides 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post)

On two occasions, the Rishon Tours travel agency reimbursed the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry for extra flight expenses incurred by then-minister Ehud Olmert even though Rishon Tours was barred from arranging international flights for government employees, including Olmert, a witness testified Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court.

The witness was Shifra Levi, who was responsible for covering the costs of overseas work-related trips for Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry workers, including Olmert.

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Olmert, who is standing trial with his close aide, Shula Zaken, is charged with receiving something by deceit in aggravated circumstances, false entry into corporate documents, fraud and breach of trust and concealing income by deceit in the Rishon Tours affair.

In 17 cases, Olmert allegedly simultaneously billed each of several organizations, including his own ministry and philanthropic organizations, when he traveled abroad on behalf of more than one of them for fund-raising speeches or work-related matters.

Throughout the time Olmert served as minister, between February 2003 and December 2005, all ministries were obliged to purchase international flight tickets for their employees from a list of two or three approved agencies. Rishon Tours was not one of them.

Levi also explained to the court that for the senior echelon, including the minister and the director-general, the ministry paid for business class tickets. If the minister wanted to sit in first class, he had to make up the difference himself.

In one case, Olmert purchased first-class tickets for himself, his wife, Aliza, and a bodyguard. When Olmert was notified that he had to reimburse the ministry for the difference between first class and business class tickets for the entourage, it was Rishon Tours that sent a check.

Levi added that Rishon Tours did not pay the difference for the bodyguard and she did not know if the ministry was ever reimbursed for his flight upgrade.

Surprised that she had received a check from Rishon Tours, a company she did not work with, Levi said she asked Olmert’s foreign relations liaison, Rachel Risby-Raz, why Rishon Tours had paid the ministry.

“What difference does it make?” she quoted Risby-Raz as replying. “There was a debt and we covered it.”

Levi said she and the head of the department,
Danny Marinov, dropped the matter.

Levi said that according to standard procedure, the ministry would receive notice of a cabinet decision approving a trip abroad by the minister for one purpose or another. She would then ask for bids on the price of the tickets from the government-approved travel agencies.

Meanwhile, the minister’s office would work out the itinerary and dates with the company. After all was arranged, Levi would send a letter confirming that it would pay for the ticket, and the ticket was then issued to the minister.

But for seven months, the standard procedure was not implemented by Olmert’s office, Levy continued. She said she received a number of bills for trips that Olmert had taken without her prior knowledge. She and Marinov met with Risby-Raz and explained to her that she had to follow government regulations. Levi testified that to the best of her knowledge, Risby-Raz did so from then on.

According to the indictment, Olmert’s office deceived the ministry by paying approved travel agencies Ayala and Hillel to act as an intermediary for Rishon Tours. These agencies submitted itineraries, timetables and bills for tickets, all of which had actually been prepared by Rishon Tours. But this aspect of the charge sheet was not addressed in Tuesday’s hearing.

In cross-examination, Olmert’s lawyer, Navit Negev, argued that Risby-Raz was on maternity leave when Olmert moved from the office of Jerusalem mayor to the ministry. Risby-Raz worked from home and was therefore unaware that the government regulations regarding trips abroad were not the same as those of the Jerusalem Municipality, and therefore continued to act as she had at the mayor’s office.

Negev submitted evidence regarding 32 trips made by Olmert after November 2003 until he left office in December 2005, maintaining that in all of them, Olmert’s office had acted in accordance with the regulations.

She also pointed out cases in which Olmert did not charge the ministry for flight tickets even when the reason for the trip, or part of the trip, was ministry-related work, and he was entitled to charge the ministry.

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