Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, was convicted of corruption in the “Prepared Food Affair” as part of a plea bargain on Sunday, which ended a four-year legal battle.
A deal was pressed heavily by Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court president Avital Chen, who approved the deal, making the conviction final and giving Sara Netanyahu a criminal record, although the charges were reduced as part of the agreement.
Netanyahu was sentenced to pay NIS 55,000, divided into 11 payments of NIS 5,000 each. The total was reduced from the original charge of NIS 359,000.
Under the deal, the prime minister’s wife confessed to a reduced charge of intentionally exploiting another person’s error in the misuse of state funds, in lieu of the original more serious charge of fraud.
The state has also reserved the right to sue Netanyahu in civil court for an additional NIS 175,000.
The last point of allowing the state to sue her in civil court may have been what caused contradictory indications last week about whether her plea bargain was in doubt.
Despite concerns that Sara might walk away from the deal at the last second as had happened for over a year of negotiations, the prime minister’s wife stuck to the deal on Sunday, confessing briefly and quietly, though publicly.
Yet, even in the courtroom, there was jousting between the sides over the significance of the plea deal and conviction.
State prosecutor Erez Padan told Judge Chen that it was not easy for the state to compromise on a reduced charge, but kept the focus on getting the prime minister’s wife to confess to a crime and pay a substantial fine.
Netanyahu lawyer, Yossi Cohen, attacked the state, the police and the media for “hunting” and “crusading” after Sara merely because she was married to the prime minister.
The accusations continued later in the day when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a long statement on Facebook lashing out at law enforcement and acting as if Sara had not confessed to a crime.
“Today an ongoing and disgraceful four-year-long hunt relating to tiny packaged meals came to an end. This hunt cost millions in taxpayer funds,” said the prime minister.
“The judge said that ‘Sara is a stranger to the criminal world’ and determined that she did not commit fraud,” the prime minister continued. “The judge said that everything needed to be viewed proportionately… he confirmed in his conclusion that there was no doubt that the events [where Sara had caused prepared food to be illegally ordered] were state events,” with foreign dignitaries and not just for her personal benefit.
“Sara endured four years of hell about accusations of which nothing remains… if she was not my wife, there would not have even been a criminal probe,” he concluded.
In fact, when Sara was in court on Sunday, one of the few statements she made was saying she understood what she was admitting to in the criminal indictment when asked by the judge.
In a rare event, a top legal official counterattacked the prime minister within hours of his Facebook post and highlighted her confession.
The official said that, “despite the fact that Mrs. Netanyahu appeared in court today and confessed to committing a crime during which she received NIS 175,000 of state funds through her exploitive actions – and was formally convicted of this – immediately afterward, the prime minister denied these facts and acted as if she was being hunted.”
The official continued, saying that the prime minister referred to “tiny packaged meals” even though Sara had admitted that she had ordered expensive takeout food totaling NIS 175,000.
Furthermore, the official said that the prime minister’s “appreciation” of the court was tongue in cheek, as he had “completely ignored the conviction verdict of the court.”
Such a message from the prime minister was “improper to send to the public and showed a contempt for the court” – and was unexpected after Netanyahu only days ago said he would always respect the rulings of the courts.
The official concluded that “Sara Netanyahu was no Dreyfus” and knew very well that her actions were criminal.
Meanwhile on Sunday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to veto the plea deal as too lenient.
The petition had called the plea bargain caving into political pressure and treating Netanyahu far too leniently, which would lead to a loss of public faith in the legal system and the rule of law.
The state convinced the High Court that the deal was within its discretion and that the rule of law was being validated, since it had compelled Netanyahu to confess to a crime after years in which she adamantly refused to admit any wrongdoing.
Last June, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against the prime minister’s wife for fraud with aggravated circumstances and breach of public trust.
The attorney-general alleged that from September 2010 until March 2013, Netanyahu acted in coordination with the other defendant in the case, former Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ezra Seidoff, to falsely misrepresent that the Prime Minister’s Residence did not employ a chef.
According to the allegations, Netanyahu and Seidoff made misrepresentations to circumvent and exploit regulations that stated: “In a case where a cook is not employed in the [prime minister’s] official residence, it is permitted to order prepared food as needed.”
The two hoped to obtain state funding both for the chef at the residence and for prepared food orders. In this way, the two allegedly obtained from the state NIS 359,000 for hundreds of prepared food orders.
However, Netanyahu’s lawyers appear to have reduced the NIS 359,000 sum to NIS 175,000, using various defenses.
In addition, the revised indictment made it sound like Netanyahu did not actively act falsely, but merely passively did not tell some of the office staff that there was a cook and that having a cook meant she needed to limit prepared food orders.
Furthermore, in 15 instances, invoices to chefs who were brought in from outside were falsified in order to circumvent limits on how much could be paid toward outside chefs. Seidoff directed the chefs, the house managers and Netanyahu’s secretaries to falsify the invoices in these instances.
Charges against Netanyahu for these 15 instances were previously closed by Mandelblit, as there was insufficient evidence to prove that she knew about the actions of Seidoff and the others.
Seidoff’s plea deal includes admitting to the same crime as Sara Netanyahu, with a fine of NIS 10,000 as well as community service hours, which will be set by the court.
Originally there were six other probes of Mrs. Netanyahu, but Mandelblit closed the other cases without an indictment.
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