In a dramatic decision, the Jerusalem District Court convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert in the Talansky retrial Monday, reversing its earlier acquittal and dealing his legacy yet another blow following his conviction in the Holyland Affair.
Olmert could face up to five more years in prison because his conviction was not for mere fraud but fraud under “aggravated circumstances,” due to the large funds involved and his position as a minister at the time.
His sentencing hearing is set for May 5.
The retrial involved the Jerusalem District Court’s three-judge panel of Jacob Zaban, Moshe Sobel and Rivka Friedman-Feldman hearing new evidence based on recordings, a journal and testimony by former top Olmert aide-turned-state’s-witness Shula Zaken, none of which was available for his original trial in July 2012.
The underlying allegations were that Olmert illegally received and concealed over $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 Zaken recordings, her journal and much of her testimony was acceptable as evidence even at this late stage, post acquittal, and that the evidence changed its conclusion from acquittal to conviction.
It said that the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that at least $153,950 of the more than $600,000 Olmert was accused of using for illegal personal use was in fact used illegally.
Most significantly, the court found that a recording of Olmert telling Zaken she could take funds from the secret safe for her illegal use contradicted and torpedoed his narrative that he did not know about the moneys or assumed they were being used for permitted political purposes.
The court said that Olmert’s statements to Zaken in the recordings eliminated the slight doubt they had about his awareness of the funds being used illegally, 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, and to explain the recordings which appeared to show that his testimony in the original case was false.
The court dismissed a central part of Eyal Rozovsky’s narrative – namely, that all alleged illegal uses of funds were unproven or, if one accepted his interpretation, were in fact permitted political uses.
Rozovsky said that a $25,000 to $30,000 payment to Zaken, which was a major focus of the case, that Olmert allegedly illegally paid to Zaken from illegally received funds in 2004, were legitimate.
He said the funds were for Zaken’s political services, such as campaigning and other overtime work above and beyond her role as an office manager in a state institution.
But the court said that the funds were concealed in a secret safe unreported to authorities; that Olmert did not follow up on how Zaken used them; that the amounts paid were not quantified in any standard manner; and that Zaken made no report of overtime hours.
In other words, the court said that the funds were unambiguously for personal use, carrying none of the characteristics of political funds, which follow a set of rules.
In late January, Olmert’s lawyers presented their closing statement, saying that “Shula Zaken had lied” repeatedly, and that the court could not penalize him for deciding not to testify.
But lead prosecutor Uri Korb’s claim at closing arguments that Olmert avoided testifying to hide behind silence appeared to have convinced the court.
“Olmert’s lies echo in our ears,” he said.
Korb responded to Olmert’s conviction Monday, saying the verdict demonstrated “that justice had won out.”
“The battle against corruption is a long battle,” he said. “For seven years we’ve been saying Olmert illegally received funds and was corrupt and that his actions harmed the state’s purity and ethics.”
Further, Korb pointed out that Friedman-Feldman – who replaced Moussia Arad, who sat on the panel that acquitted Olmert but retired in 2013 – noted in her opinion that Olmert should have been convicted the first time, even without all the additional evidence.
He also said, “Olmert’s decision not to testify in the retrial spoke for itself.”
However, Olmert’s lawyers said: “We regret the decision,” saying “we had hoped the court would reaffirm its earlier acquittal.”
Rozovsky was asked by the press if it was a mistake not to have Olmert testify.
“We didn’t think there was enough evidence to convict him even without Olmert testifying,” he responded.
Both of the former prime minister’s lawyers sounded very unsure about appealing the verdict.
Olmert’s spokesman, Amir Dan, sent a statement shortly after the retrial saying they would definitely appeal.
Another possibility is that Olmert does not appeal the conviction but appeals any sentence that carries jail time.
Dan added that the guilty verdict came “despite Shula Zaken’s lies in court,” and that they proved “unambiguously that Zaken edited, deleted and tampered with the recordings” in a way that benefited her and harmed Olmert.
On this point, the court recognized that Zaken’s testimony included lies and that she had unethically edited the recordings. However, the court said that she had not edited the key recordings, which were decisive against Olmert, and her lies were also on side issues, such that neither point impacted the overall verdict against him.
Korb said, “We returned here following an evidentiary earthquake which impacted all of us – I’m speaking of the recordings, the journal and the testimony of Zaken,” he said.
The prosecution had also attacked Olmert using Zaken’s allegations that before she decided to cooperate with the state, Olmert promised her $10,000 per month if she refused the state’s plea bargain to turn state’s witness against him.
Olmert was acquitted in July 2012 of illegally using cash he received in envelopes from Talansky.
But he was convicted of bribery and sentenced to six years in prison in the Holyland Affair in May 2014, which was also the trial that led to the first break between Olmert and Zaken.
According to Zaken, she decided to turn into a state’s witness near the end of the Holyland trial when Olmert’s lawyers called her corrupt and tried to tar her with this label.
Olmert’s appeal of his Holyland conviction is still pending before the Supreme Court.
The state is expected after the Holyland appeal decision to decide whether to file a separate, third indictment against Olmert for obstructing justice and witness tampering in all of his other cases.
Olmert accepted and did not appeal a more minor 2012 conviction by the same court in the Investment Affairs because the sentence did not carry any jail time.