Former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s bureau chief Shula Zaken was convicted on Tuesday of fraudulently receiving funds, fraud and breach of public trust in the Rishon Tours affair.
She was acquitted of falsifying documents in the Rishon Tours affair, of fraud and breach of public trust in the Talansky affair and of illegal wiretapping in the fourth count of the indictment of the Olmert and Zaken corruption trial.
The result was a mixed one for Zaken and the charges she was convicted of were more serious than Olmert, who appears to have escaped the long list of charges against him mostly unscathed.
The indictment spanned events that allegedly took place during 2002-2006, first during Olmert’s tenure as mayor of Jerusalem and later when he served as a government minister, with Zaken being a key staff member at all times.
On the first charge, Zaken was accused of aiding Olmert in a scheme of double-billing various nonprofit organizations for overseas flights, and using the extra funds – totaling $92,000 – to pay for private trips for Olmert and his family, via his Rishon Tours travel agency.
The court opened one of the sections of its 18-page summary of the opinion, which the court read from the bench, posing the question: how can the court acquit Olmert while convicting Zaken regarding the Rishon Tours affair? The court sharpened the question, noting the initial absurdity of convicting a “messenger” – or someone like Zaken who merely acts on behalf of a boss like Olmert – without convicting the boss who gives the orders.
But the court explained that Zaken was no typical underling.
Rather, she had acquired tremendous power by being Olmert’s “right hand.” In that capacity, Zaken had achieved the ability to act autonomously on a broad range of affairs, the court said.
Zaken, the court found, had taken out loans in Olmert’s name, without his knowledge, in order to pay off his personal debts.
She had signed checks in his name and listened in on his telephone conversations without his knowledge, according to the court.
Zaken had even, without Olmert’s knowledge, asked his son to transfer NIS 100,000 into one of the former prime minister’s accounts to help him reduce a debt, the court said.
According to the court, Zaken had made misrepresentations on her involvement in the Rishon Tours affair, whereas Olmert had not known of many of her actions.
In light of Zaken’s unusual motivation and autonomy to act on behalf of Olmert, her fateful decision not to testify – unlike Olmert who testified – and the different evidence brought against her, the court decided that it was legally obligated to convict her even though it acquitted Olmert.
In the Talansky affair, Zaken was charged with helping Olmert obtain $600,000 from American businessman Morris Talansky from 1993-2005, without reporting receipt of the funds.
Regarding the Talansky affair, although the court noted that it appeared that Zaken’s actions were not free of guilt and that her acts could lead to an inference of questionable ethical practices, since it had held that Olmert’s non-reporting of the funds was not criminal, it could not hold that her actions facilitating the holding of the funds was criminal either.
Although Zaken was not implicated in some of the other indictments against Olmert, she was also indicted for illegally wiretapping and listening in on his telephone calls. Zaken was ultimately acquitted on these charges, despite significant evidence, because the court said it could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Zaken’s listening in on Olmert’s calls were done without his agreement.
Trying to portray her conviction in the best possible light, Zaken’s attorneys said that the court had characterized the environment surrounding Zaken’s convictions as that of a big mess, and had not said that she had intentionally broken the law. Her attorneys added that she had remained loyal despite the state’s heavy-handed attempts to get her to testify against Olmert, and that she never intended to hurt anyone.