Supreme Court rejects appeal on conviction, sentence in Greek Patriarchate Affair

Businessman forged signature of bed-ridden Patriarch in fraudulent KKL-JNF real estate purchase.

November 3, 2013 22:28
2 minute read.
Israeli woman meets the greek patriach 521

Israeli woman meets the greek patriach 521. (photo credit: JIM FLETCHER)

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal for a reduced sentence and fine by a central player in the Greek Patriarchate Affair, one of the most scandalous and galling frauds pulled off in Israel’s history.

The decision was announced Sunday, though it was handed down on Friday.

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The central appeal was filed by convicted Israeli businessman Benno Zussman against his five-and-ahalf year sentence and over NIS 4 million in fines, for his part in a conspiracy and fabricated deal between Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund and Jerusalem’s Greek Patriarchate.

The scandal culminated with Zussman and Yaakov Rabinovich, conspiring to forge the signature of an ailing and bedridden Greek patriarch to sign over valuable real estate in Jerusalem for a comparatively small sum.

The state had crossappealed, asking for an even harsher sentence and higher fine, which was also rejected.

Another point of high drama in the case was Zussman’s fleeing to Romania, where he avoided prosecution until 2010, when, after extensive efforts, he was extradited to Israel.

In his appeal, Zussman asked the court to overturn his conviction for fraud, and asked the court for a lighter sentence and a lower fine should it uphold his conviction.

He said the lower court failed to properly consider the testimony of several of the other parties who were present at the time the transaction was finalized, who all testified that the patriarch was of sound mind.

The state said that his fine was much lower and his prison sentence shorter than that of his co-conspirator, Rabinovich, convicted and sentenced years before while Zussman was still in Romania.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s findings of fact, stating that the witnesses Zussman referred to were nearby, but never actually in the room with the patriarch, reducing the value of their testimony.

In convicting Zussman, the district court said the fraud was extraordinarily sophisticated and one in which the reality of what happened was hard to believe.

Zussman had cultivated a close relationship with the Greek Patriarchate for years. He exploited these ties to craft a vast real estate conspiracy to “buy” invaluable Greek Patriarchate lands in the capital’s Rehavia neighborhood, near Jerusalem’s old central bus station and in Beit Shemesh.

Zussman and Rabinovich convinced others that aging patriarch Diodoros I wished to “sell” many of the valuable lands for a paltry $20m., in exchange for a 999-year lease (which would automatically be renewed every 99 years).

KKL-JNF was thrilled with the deal, due to concerns that when the current lease on those lands expired, the Patriarchate would demand an inordinate sum for a new lease.

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