The fate of former prime minister Ehud Olmert hangs in the balance on Monday as the Jerusalem District Court renders its verdict in the Talansky retrial.
The retrial involves the 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-witness Shula Zaken against Olmert, none of which was available for his original trial in which he was acquitted in July 2012.
Friedman-Feldman replaced Moussia Arad, who sat on the panel that acquitted Olmert, but who retired in 2013.
The underlying allegations are that Olmert illegally received and concealed substantial funds in envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, with the case itself dating back to 2008.
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.
Olmert’s lawyer Eyal Rozovsky, who joined his prior lawyer Eli Zohar for the retrial, attacked the heart of the prosecution’s case on this point.
Throughout the retrial, which opened in September 2014 after a summer 2014 Supreme Court decision to send the case back for a second round, the state told the court that one of the primary reasons to convict Olmert is he refused to testify and rebut Zaken’s allegations, her journal and her recordings of him.
Rozovsky argued that the Supreme Court had not sent the case back for a full retrial, which might have required Olmert to testify and to judge him negatively for holding back. Rather, the Supreme Court limited the retrial to the issue of whether Olmert used certain funds in dispute for permitted political purposes or for illegal personal uses and whether the new Zaken recordings and her journal proved the illegal kind.
In other words, the retrial could have been labeled a very limited add-on evidentiary hearing on a few small items – nothing that would require Olmert to testify again, having already done so on around two-dozen occasions during the original trial.
In contrast, lead state prosecutor Uri Korb told the court in his closing statement that “the lies of Olmert echo in our ears.”
“We returned here following an evidentiary earthquake which impacted all of us – I’m speaking of the recordings, the journal and the testimony of [Shula] Zaken,” he said.
Korb also said that Olmert’s explanation that he decided not to testify to save time in the case is blatantly untrue, and he strongly implied Olmert is hiding behind silence.
The prosecution 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 which led to the first break between Olmert and Zaken. According to Zaken, she decided to turn state’s witness near the end of the Holyland trial when Olmert’s lawyers called her corrupt and tried to tar her with his baggage.
Olmert’s appeal of his Holyland conviction is still pending before the Supreme Court.
The state appealed in fall 2012, and before the appeal had been decided the now infamous Zaken recordings surfaced of her talking to Olmert, with him allegedly making statements proving he both illegally used the Talansky funds and that he obstructed Zaken from telling the truth in the original trial.
A central part of Rozovsky’s narrative was explaining that all alleged illegal uses of funds were unproven or, if one accepted his interpretation, were in fact permitted political uses.
Some claimed illegal uses of funds were tied to four entries in Zaken’s journal, a major new source of evidence against Olmert which she prevented the prosecution from using in the original trial, adding up to Olmert receiving $19,800 for illegal personal use.
Rozovsky said each receipt of funds could be tied to a political event for which the funds could have permissibly been used.
Rozovsky said the $25,000-30,000 which Olmert allegedly illegally paid to Zaken from illegally received funds in 2004 were legitimate, as they were for Zaken’s political services, such as campaigning, above and beyond her work as an office manager in a state institution.
He said Zaken had testified that she was Olmert’s “closest political aide and righthand person, who saw his political fate as determining where her life would go” and stopped at nothing in “overtime” to promote his career and political activities.
Rozovsky said that the other allegations about Olmert illegally using funds to purchase expensive cigars, tailor-made suits and dry cleaning did not appear in either her journal or on any of the recordings and were based solely on her testimony, which he found extremely contradictory and questionable.
He added that Zaken admitted she turned state witness against him to “destroy him” and settle scores with him over her feeling he had betrayed her.
Yet Korb said that Zaken’s testimony that Olmert gave her $30,000 for personal use and that he had used funds from the secret safe for expensive cigars, tailored suits and dry cleaning, some of which was confirmed either on the recordings, in the journal or both, proved beyond any doubt that Olmert had used the funds for illegal personal use, even if the proof had not existed during the original trial.
Conventional wisdom prior to closing arguments was that all of the new evidence would overwhelmingly push the court to reverse its earlier acquittal of Olmert and change it to a conviction.
But much of the media was surprised by how hard the court pounded the prosecution in its closing statements and how soft it was with Olmert’s lawyers, despite their suggesting highly unconventional interpretations of the new Zaken recordings as part of their narrative to get him acquitted.