Grudgingly, Judge David Rozen accepted Shula Zaken’s plea deal with the prosecution in the Holyland trial on Thursday, sentencing her to 11 months in prison on multiple bribery convictions.
The deal saw the former bureau chief to former prime minister Ehud Olmert receive a reduced sentence in exchange for providing taped conversations of Olmert that allegedly incriminate him in the other cases he was investigated for or is under investigation for. She was also fined NIS 25,000, with a NIS 75,000 forfeiture, noticeably lower than the seven-figure fines given to many other defendants in the case. She is due to start her prison sentence on September 1.
The Tel Aviv District Court judge was highly critical of Zaken throughout the sentencing hearing, saying she deserved at least five years in prison. But Rozen said he was ultimately bound by Supreme Court precedent in favor of honoring plea bargains agreed to by the state.
After standing by Olmert’s side for more than 30 years, including more than five years of trials, Zaken cut a plea bargain, just days before Olmert’s March 31 conviction in the Holyland real estate case, agreeing to testify and bring evidence against him for trying to secure her noncooperation with the state in all of the cases against him.
After the state and the defense argued in favor of accepting the deal, it was Zaken’s turn to read a pre-written statement of regret. She started by noting that she was “as sorry as I can be” for her actions, which went against “her values and values she taught her children.”
Then something remarkable happened. What was expected to be a simple statement turned into an unrehearsed cross-examination by Rozen.
Under this questioning on Thursday, Zaken painted herself as a victim who was exploited by Olmert and his attorney Roi Blecher, and by Shmuel Duchner, the key Holyland briberturned- state’s witness, who died last year during the trial. She said Olmert and his associates had made her lie, but that she had decided to come forward and offer evidence against him because she could no longer take being exploited and made a scapegoat.
She slammed Blecher for saying on television that she had lied, saying “Of course I lied, he told me to lie,” although her lawyer corrected her by saying a different Olmert associate had told her to lie.
Zaken also said Olmert had told her not to cooperate with the state in the “Jerusalem case,” which encompassed the court cases surrounding the Talansky, Rishon Tours and Investment Center Affairs, because prosecutor Uri Korb, metaphorically, would “kill her,” meaning he would fool her in a plea bargain and send her to jail for an extended period.
Leading up to the verdict, Zaken gave the state eight recordings covering several hours of conversations between her and Olmert, mostly from the years 2011 and 2012. It appeared that one of the phone conversations was from the period when she was said to have withdrawn from a much earlier, unconsummated, plea bargain at the very start of the trial.
After from that first, failed, round of negotiations between Zaken and the state, the two sides again failed to reach an agreement around mid- March after weeks of negotiations.
One reason the state gave at the time for rejecting the deal, and in parallel, for accepting a deal with her about a week later, was that she had first refused to produce the tapes and later agreed to produce them.
Zaken’s lawyer revealed that she did not want to turn over the tapes of Olmert at first, and even wavered on admitting they existed because she thought there was nothing useful on them. The lawyer then explained that he had pushed her to let him listen to the tapes and that he was surprised to hear that there was significant useful evidence on the tapes against Olmert – an assessment the state agreed with.
During Thursday’s sentencing, Rozen expressed skepticism of the value of Zaken’s new testimony, given that he was “already sending a former prime minister to prison for six years.
“What else is there to do?” he asked rhetorically.
The judge expressed anger at the fact that she had recorded a prime minister without his knowledge.
Zaken’s lawyer claimed, alternately, that she had taped Olmert with his knowledge in the context of work, or that she had taped him at home without his knowledge to provide details to family members who wanted to know what was being discussed – claims the judge said had “no basis.”
Rozen called Zaken a “major criminal” in the Holyland case who had taken a great deal in bribe money for herself in addition to what she handled for Olmert and what he knew about. He asked why he should show her mercy when she had blown earlier plea bargains and agreed to a deal only at the eleventh hour after testifying falsely about a romance with Duchner (a manufactured story to explain the bribes), and after the trial was essentially over.
Zaken’s lawyer tried on Thursday to justify her reluctance to turn on her boss, given that Olmert was a former prime minister she had served for decades, and said that for Zaken it had been like “parting the Red Sea.”
In its defense of the plea bargain, the state said the information provided by Zaken might lead to as much as nine additional years in prison for Olmert, whom Rozen sentenced on Tuesday to six years incarceration for his Holyland-related convictions.
While the state has tried to keep most of the new evidence against Olmert secret, showing the judge an outline, Rozen on Thursday pushed the state, saying that “if Olmert already knows” and has been questioned about the allegations against him, “then the whole world knows.”
Impatient as to why the Zaken deal should matter to him, he asked the state: “Doesn’t all of this [the secret evidence] only apply to the Jerusalem case [involving the Talansky, Rishon Tours and Investment Center Affairs]? How does it impact us [the Holyland case]?” The state responded by saying that if the judge, who was holding a hard copy of the secret evidence in his hand, noted one instance where Olmert took illegal action regarding Zaken, he should assume that Olmert took similar action toward Zaken in the Holyland case.
Speculation has been rife that the evidence relates to associates of Olmert paying Zaken’s legal fees and fines, as well as a salary, and improperly discussing the case or telling her to make untrue statements in exchange for the financial support.
There also appeared to be further explicit proof against Olmert relating to the Holyland case and new evidence against him in the 2012 trial.