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Ethics @ Work: Breach of trust in the breach
The Shula Zaken case shows the extent of responsibility of a public servant.
This past week, Shula Zaken, formerly the bureau chief of prime minister Ehud
Olmert, was convicted of breach of trust in a case involving her pedestrian role
as Olmert’s appointment maker. The court found that Zaken had intentionally and
repeatedly obstructed appointments between Israel Tax Authority head Jacky Matza
and Olmert, who was then the finance minister.
Matza had sought to
recommend a particular candidate for a senior appointment in the ITA, but
Zaken’s brother, Yoram Karshi, wanted time to persuade Matza to appoint another
individual more to Karshi’s liking, and he prevailed on his sister to drag
things out until Matza could be brought around.
The “breach of trust” law
is one of the most important legal tools against public-sector corruption in
Israel. The law itself is maddeningly vague; the crime of “fraud or breach of
trust” is defined as “an act of fraud or breach of trust that harms the public,”
even if the same act would not be considered a crime against a private
Precedent has given the law some substance, and the “harm” to
the public is defined as anything that erodes public trust in public servants,
contradicts their integrity, or harms the public interest.
that specifies a higher bar for a public servant seems clearly applicable here.
If a secretary for a business executive took advantage of her position to delay
meetings with one supplier in order to give an advantage to another supplier,
she would be guilty of a grave breach of professional ethics, but I don’t know
of any crime that would be involved. The case for extra strictness in the public
sphere seems clear, partially because the scope for harm is so
What is particularly interesting here is how indirect Zaken’s
involvement was. Matza himself only recommended Karshi’s candidate, and all
Zaken is convicted of doing was a passive act of facilitating that
recommendation. The court decided that “breach of trust” can occur even “in the
breach,” through a default or lack of action.
Ethically this is certainly
the right judgment. A person’s authority is exercised both in the commission and
through omission, and it needs to always be exercised in the public
Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).