Police on Tuesday arrested or detained 15 suspects from Ashdod Port – including Union chairman Alon Hassan – and affiliated private companies on suspicion of bribery and corruption deals totaling millions of shekels.
Hassan’s cousin David Hassan, the deputy chief of Dana Port Services and Logistics, one of the companies suspected of unlawful dealings with the port, was also among those arrested, as was Dana CEO Yaniv Belter and former Ashdod Port CEO Shuki Sagis, an ally of Alon Hassan who resigned in July.
Controlling shareholders of oil and gas company Shemen were questioned about their dealings with the port, though the company said that to the best of its knowledge it was not the target of the investigation.
According to Army Radio, former IDF chief of staff and chairman of Shemen Gabi Ashkenazi was also called for questioning by police. According to Globes, Shemen bought port services from the Dana company, which bought them from the port at a 10th of the price.
Altogether seven suspects were brought to court on Tuesday. Police said there was no indication that any organized crime figures were involved in the supposed bribery scheme.
The arrests, which were accompanied by home and office searches, follow a yearlong undercover police investigation carried out in cooperation with the Israel Tax Authority and the Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority. Investigators looked into suspected bribery, fraud, breach of trust, abuse of power, extortion, private gain of a public worker and violations of the Prohibition on Money Laundering Law (2000).
They said they found evidence that port officials created mechanisms for advancing the interests of private companies controlled by associates who shared the profits, through bribes or in-kind benefits, with the officials.
A representative of the police Investigations and Intelligence Branch said on Tuesday that the bribes totaled around NIS 10 million and were paid over the past two or three years.
The police representative said Alon Hassan made money on both ends of the deal, first by taking bribes from the company with the promise that it would win tenders to provide services at the port, and second because he is connected to people running the company, including the cousin arrested on Tuesday.
Officials allegedly threatened and extorted other companies that wanted contracts with the port to stay out of the tenders, even if they offered lower bids. As a result, the port incurred higher expenses, which ultimately comes at the expense of the state.
The Finance Ministry declined to comment on the case.
In June of last year, a Channel 2 investigation into Hassan’s finances led him to briefly step down from his post, only to be reinstated by then-Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini in September after an internal investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.
Following the announcement of the arrests on Tuesday, the Histadrut announced that union secretary Avinoam Shushan would replace Hassan, at least “until the issue is clarified.”
Ashdod Port did regular business with a small shipping company connected to Hassan and stocked products from a cleaning supplies company he owns, Channel 2 reported.
It alleged that Hassan’s family members and friends received choice positions and ran intermediate businesses facilitating profitable deals between his companies and the port. Hassan denied the allegations.
In April, the port went on an unannounced strike, which port director Itzik Bloomenthal estimated cost NIS 2 million-NIS 3m. a day, in protest of a new anti-nepotism policy banning union members’ relatives from being hired. The same day, Hassan and Shushan were called for a disciplinary hearing over holding unauthorized positions, including political positions, outside the port.
Hassan’s use of an anti-gay slur on his Facebook page in March led Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who has been promoting port reforms the union opposes, to call for Hassan’s resignation.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Katz wrote, “As I promised in the past: I will continue to advance reforms in the ports despite pressure and threats. I trust law-enforcement authorities to do their jobs well.”
The reforms would see private ports built to compete with the state-owned monopolistic ones in Ashdod and Haifa.
In 2012, the port union came under fire when reports surfaced that its crane operators were working half shifts, but receiving full pay. Their salaries range from NIS 35,000-NIS 45,000 a month.