(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The trial of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, in the “Prepared Food Affair” enters a critical phase on Monday, when the prosecution is expected to reject plea bargain compromises reportedly offered by a court-appointed arbitrator.
The trial has been stalled since it began in October, after Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court President Avital Chen appointed an arbitrator and urged the sides to reach a deal.
Though the arbitrator’s offers reportedly include a higher fine than what Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers offered in pre-indictment plea-deal negotiations, the prosecution is expected to reject anything short of an acceptance of criminal responsibility.
In June, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit filed an indictment against the prime minister’s wife for fraud with aggravated circumstances and breach of public trust in an explosive development which shook the country.
In the Prepared Food Affair, the attorney-general has alleged that from September 2010 until March 2013, Sara Netanyahu acted in coordination with then-Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ezra Seidoff to present the false misrepresentation that the Prime Minister’s Residence did not employ a chef, even though there was one on staff during that time.
When the trial opened in October, prosecution lawyers Erez Padan and Jenny Avni pressed for a three-judge panel, saying that the fate of the prime minister’s wife and issues of misuse of public funds have serious significance for the broader public.
They said that the court has wide discretion to add judges to a case, and asked rhetorically: “If not in this case, then when?”
Sara’s lawyer, Yossi Cohen, slammed the prosecution’s position saying: “This case over food never should have been filed, and now they are trying to over-complicate it.”
Cohen said that one judge was more than enough, just as it had been enough for the Holyland trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
The prosecution retorted that there were three magistrate’s court judges in the trial of Avigdor Liberman, which was for a similar level of severity in terms of the alleged crimes.
Chen then deferred the issue, sending the case to arbitration.
It is unclear how much Sara’s public trial will damage the prime minister politically, in an atmosphere in which the attorney-general is expected to announce an intent to indict him as well, sometime before February 21.
Originally, the trial was set for July, but it was delayed by health problems of one of Netanyahu’s other lawyers, Jacob Weinroth, who died a week after the trial began.
In the Prepared Food Affair, according to the allegations, Sara Netanyahu and Seidoff made misrepresentations to circumvent and exploit regulations that stated: “In a case where a cook is not employed in the 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 fraudulently obtained from the state NIS 359,000 for hundreds of 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 for such 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.
The Sara Netanyahu cases jumped into the headlines in February 2015 as part of a State Comptroller report, resulting in “Bottlegate” and other now-closed cases becoming household names. It became a full criminal investigation starting five months later in July.
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