Olmert denies direct involvement in Rishon Tours affair

Former PM on the witness stand: "I thought the agency gave me efficient travel-related service. That is where it started and ended."

By RON FRIEDMAN, JPOST.COM STAFF
June 7, 2011 04:45
3 minute read.
Ehud Olmert arrives at J'lem court for trial

Olmert arriving at trial 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert testified in court over his involvement in the Rishon Tours double billing affair on Monday, claiming he never knowingly took money from charitable organizations to pay for flights for him and his family.

In his testimony in Jerusalem District Court, the third to date, Olmert tried to distance himself from the everyday goings on of his office, saying he had no knowledge of the way flight arrangements were made and paid for by his staff, and he “never dealt with the small accounting issues” such as the price of airline tickets.

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Olmert has been indicted on charges that he had billed two and sometimes three different organizations to pay for his flight expenses when traveling abroad.

The prosecution identified 17 such trips during Olmert’s 2006- 2009 term as prime minister.

Olmert is accused of pocketing roughly NIS 90,000 to pay for flight tickets and upgrades for family members.

Olmert conceded that there may have been mistakes made in the payments for his flights, but rejected the claim that he had knowingly swindled nonprofit organizations or that he was criminally responsible for the acts he was accused of.

He said that the mistakes might have arisen due to the fact that the flight plans were often made months in advance and that his travel coordinator, Rachel Rizby Raz, who was brought before the court as part of the prosecution’s case, would add on additional sponsors as new events were scheduled.

He stressed that the standing instructions had been only that the flights be paid for and it was never said, nor even hinted, that excess payments should be put aside. He said that as far as he knew his family flew on points accumulated from his travels and when necessary paid for tickets out of his private accounts.

“The thought that people believe I would try to profit from these organizations, which are close to my heart, haunts me relentlessly. Who did I profit off at AKIM [the National Association for the Habilitation of the Mentally Handicapped in Israel], Aleh [a network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities], the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers?” the former prime minister asked.

Olmert said his flights were supposed to be paid for under conditions that everyone was aware of, and that he believed his family was eligible to fly using frequent flier miles he accumulated on flights paid for by charitable organizations.

He denied having any direct contact with the manager of the Rishon Tours travel agency, as was described in the indictment sheet. “I thought the agency gave me efficient travelrelated service. That is where it started and ended,” he said.

Olmert said he never bothered with the details of the flight plans and had left it to his professional staff.

“From time to time Rachel [Rizby Raz] would approach me with a specific question and I would answer her about it, but does anybody seriously think that the vice premier would sit with a calculator and make the calculations about who paid what?” Olmert said. “There are people in whose judgment I trusted and continue to do so to this day. Even now I am convinced that they acted in good faith. They may have made mistakes, I may have made mistakes, but is there anyone who hasn’t? At the end of the day if a mistake was made the responsibility falls on the principal party, but personal responsibility in the criminal sense to gain profit?”

When asked about the payments for his wife Aliza’s flights to Rome and to South Korea, on which she accompanied him and which were allegedly paid for by double billing, Olmert said that as a rule the government should have paid for the flights, but that he let his staff take care of the details.

Olmert testified that for much of his time in the public service, he was in poor financial condition, owing money to the bank. He said that despite a relatively generous salary, he had to provide for four children who wanted to go to university abroad.


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