Legal Affairs: Moral authority or megalomaniac?

Dissecting Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha's battle with his bosses.

By DAN IZENBERG
September 6, 2007 18:55
4 minute read.
yaron zelekha 88 298

yaron zelekha 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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If the accountant-general of the Finance Ministry, Yaron Zelekha, is a whistle-blower, he is certainly an unconventional one. Whistle-blowers usually come from the lower or middle ranks of the civil service. They are generally not well known, and have little support for the drastic step they take of complaining about corruption on the part of their superiors or fellow workers. It is unprecedented that someone with as high a rank as Zelekha could be considered a whistle-blower or regarded as someone who needs the protection of the State Comptroller or the High Court of Justice. Until assuming his present position on October 19, 2003, Zelekha appeared to be a member of the country's ruling elite par excellence. He holds a doctorate in economics from Bar-Ilan University (2001). In 2002, he was appointed a member of the board of directors of the oil refineries and later deputy director-general of the company responsible for the construction of Highway 6. In 1996, he served as head of economic matters in the Prime Minister's Office. Indeed, his appointment as accountant-general by Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on October 19, 2003 appeared to be just one more step up in his senior status in Israeli society. Not long afterwards, however, Zelekha became a controversial figure. He aroused a great deal of enmity within and outside the Treasury almost from the day he took office. These conflicts may have been caused by Zelekha's burning desire to improve the functioning of the ministry. But even if this was true, they also indicated that there was something brash and insensitive in his personality that hurt and angered others. At any rate, so long as Netanyahu was at the ministry helm, Zelekha had the backing to do whatever he wanted. He had the boss's full support. HIS TROUBLES began when Netanyahu resigned and was replaced by Ehud Olmert. Whatever the relations between the two had been until then, they quickly deteriorated into bitter enmity. According to Zelekha, as soon as he took over at the Treasury, Olmert began to intervene in the terms of the tender for the sale of the core ownership of Bank Le'umi. He allegedly began to change the terms to accommodate Australian businessman Frank Lowy, a personal friend. At a meeting of the top echelon of the ministry a few days before the tender deadline, Zelekha publicly accused Olmert of working on behalf of "a very specific group." In response, Olmert asked the senior officials to leave the room while he consulted with ministry director-general Yossi Bachar. He then called the participants back into the room and ordered Bachar and Zelekha to reach an agreement on the discount that the government would offer the bidders. The two agreed on a much smaller discount than Olmert had wanted. A few days later, Lowy dropped out of the competition. Within weeks of that meeting, Olmert tried to fire Zelekha. It was the first of three attempts to fire Zelekha before the end of his four-year contract. When State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss began to investigate the Bank Leumi affair, Zelekha became his star witness. Since then, the case has been turned over to the police, who are conducting a criminal investigation. Another key difference between Zelekha and the "run-of-the-mill" whistle-blower is that the latter are limited in their aims. They know of an act of corruption and want to inform the authorities about it. Furthermore, they can generally reveal corruption committed at the relatively low administrative level where they themselves work. Zelekha, on the other hand, is operating at the highest level of the country and wants to save the world. During a recent meeting of the Knesset caucus against corruption, Zelekha declared, "We must put an end to the terrorism of corruption. The cost of corruption is almost as expensive as the security budget and the war against corruption is more important than the war against traffic accidents." Zelekha's description of his mission has made him many friends and many enemies. Watchdog societies like the Movement for Quality Government and Ometz, which are naturally suspicious of politicians, adore him. Others consider him a megalomaniac whose head has been so turned by the power he has achieved that he has forgotten who has been chosen by the people and who has been chosen by the politicians. One expert in the field of whistle-blowers told The Jerusalem Post recently that "most whistle blowers do, indeed, have accurate and important information but are often negatively motivated by the fact that they have not been promoted in their jobs or feel personal animosity or jealousy towards the official against whom they are informing. Whistle-blowers are not angels." It is more than likely that even if Zelekha is genuinely contributing to uncovering corruption, he is probably not a knight in shining armor come to save the damsel in distress, that is, the powerless but honest folk, from the dragon, that is the powerful and dishonest politicians. The fact that his underlying motivations may not be as pure as his admirers claim does not detract from the good he might be doing, however. On the other hand, given the importance of the position he holds, if he is a difficult character he could indeed be causing serious harm in the ministry. In that case, the decision not to renew his contract might be justified. In the final analysis, despite all the differences between Zelekha and most of the others who reveal corruption, he qualifies as a whistle-blower if he can prove that Olmert or Finance Minister Roni Bar-On decided not to renew his contract because he had accused Olmert of corruption. If either the State Comptroller or the High Court of Justice comes to that conclusion, Zelekha will deserve and most likely receive protection in accordance with the law and the principles of proper administration.

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