For the first time in all his legal sagas, whispering and practically begging the judges to keep him out of prison, former prime minister Ehud Olmert told three Jerusalem District Court judges that “I do not take the conviction lightly” and “I respect the [court’s] decision.”
These final scenes of the Talansky retrial were a shocking turn-around for the man who ran the country until 2009 and was a fixture in the country’s halls of power for decades.
The retrial involved the Jerusalem District Court’s three-judge panel of Jacob Zaban, Moshe Sobel and Rivkah Friedman-Feldman hearing new evidence based on recordings, a journal and testimony against Olmert by his former top aide-turnedstate’s witness Shula Zaken – none of which was available for his original trial in July 2012, when he was acquitted.
The underlying allegations are that Olmert illegally received and concealed more than $600,000 in envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky between 1993 and 2002, with the case itself dating back to 2008.
The court found that the new Zaken recordings, her journal and much of her testimony were acceptable as evidence even post-acquittal – so much so that the evidence changed the conclusion from acquittal to conviction.
State prosecutor Uri Korb asked the court to sentence Olmert to the midpoint of eight-to-18 months – about 13 months – in jail for his conviction in the Talansky retrial.
He also requested that the jail time be added on to Olmert’s standing six-year jail sentence for his bribery conviction in the Holyland trial, which he has appealed.
Olmert’s lawyers sought no jail time and a mere six months of community service.
Backing up their request for leniency, Olmert and his team rolled out letters to the court from former British prime minister Tony Blair and former Mossad head Meir Dagan describing the former premier’s contributions to the country.
“Ehud was a leader with a vision both of Israel’s security and of the need for a wider peace in the Middle East,” Blair’s letter stated. “He was tough in ensuring that Israel was protected; and resolute in his belief that peace was an indispensable part of such protection.... The personal relations between me and Ehud went beyond that between heads of government, and were based on friendship and trust with a clear understanding of the needs and sensitivities of the other side. Ehud’s conscious efforts to bring peace with Israel’s neighbors should be admired.”
Dagan’s letter referred to Olmert as “an exceptional prime minister. He made many courageous decisions... which contributed and continue to contribute to the state’s security.”
Dagan noted that he had worked with Olmert a lot since 2003, and that they had “worked intensively” together since Olmert became prime minister in 2006.
Korb, however, asked for a harsh sentence, saying Olmert’s actions were “causing a loss of public faith” in government and encouraging the thought that “everyone is corrupt and there is nothing we can do.”
The average citizen, he said, was now asking rhetorically, “Why should I be the only sucker” and tell police and the authorities the truth, when others who misled the police and courts – as Korb said Olmert had done – could get away with leniency? Korb also referred to the “fantastic amounts” of money with which Olmert had dealt illegally, and accused him of having “corrupted [his former bureau chief] Zaken with his corrupt actions.”
He emphasized that the court had convicted Olmert not of low-level fraud, but of aggravated fraud, because of the large amounts of illegally used funds, the duration of the violations, and Olmert’s high office.
In contrast, Olmert doubled down on his contributions to the state, and pleaded to the judges to take that into account. He stressed that in public service, he had always tried to act for what he thought was “good, right and helpful” to society.
In trying to get leniency, his lawyer Eyal Rozovsky admitted publicly for the first time that the former prime minister’s political career was dead, saying there was no need to deter him from a political future with a harsher punishment since “he’s lost his world... he has no public future.”
Both Olmert and his lawyer described the nine years of investigations and the impact on his family – including his grandchildren being asked embarrassing questions about him – as being punishment enough.
The court’s conviction was based on the state having proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Olmert had indeed illegally used at least $153,950 of the $600,000 in question.
Zaban’s main decision, with Sobel and Friedman-Feldman agreeing on the conviction but writing separate opinions interpreting the facts, said Zaken had received funds for illegal use at least twice.
Most significantly, the court found that a recording of Olmert telling Zaken she could take funds from the secret safe illegally for her own use contradicted and torpedoed his narrative that he did not know about the funds or assumed they were being used for permitted political purposes.
The court said Olmert’s statements to Zaken in the recordings eliminated the slight doubt they’d had about his awareness of the funds’ illegal use, which had paved the way to his 2012 acquittal.
Zaban also slammed Olmert for failing to testify in the retrial to rebut the new evidence against him – including explaining the recordings – since that appeared to show that his testimony in the original case was false.
The judges listened intently, if not sympathetically, to Olmert. However, it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately sympathize with him as a former prime minister, as they did in the original verdict, or whether they will deal with him harshly, given the many who consider him to have hoodwinked the judges in the first trial.
He is due to be sentenced on May 25.
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