State Comptroller Joseph Shapira in his annual report published on Tuesday blasts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his conduct in the multiyear saga which has been termed the Bibi Tours Affair.
The report’s allegations of problematic conduct regarding possible double billing, use of public bonus miles for personal use for overseas flights by Netanyahu and other issues, relate to his time as finance minister from March 2003 to August 2005.
Some of the points in the report which stand-out the most include that $50,000 of Sara Netanyahu’s flights during that time were paid for by non-governmental actors without appropriate accounting and approvals. There are similar allegations for flights for their sons. Also, Yehiel Leiter, an employee of Netanyahu, fronted personal costs for him.
The report also notes that the Netanyahus stayed in October 2014 at expensive locations in the US and in the French Riviera at least partially at the expense of Israel Bonds for $4,270 and 4,133 euros.
Netanyahu has vehemently denied that the allegations amount to anything problematic, let alone anything criminal.
It still remains unclear whether the prime minister’s conduct will lead to any kind of additional criminal investigation, though Knesset State Control Committee Chairwoman Karin Elharar said on Tuesday that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit would update her committee on the issue in the very near future.
Shapira was at loggerheads with former attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein for closing an initial probe of the matter in September 2014 without a full criminal investigation.
At the time, Weinstein explained that after an initial review, “at the end of the day, in light of the balance of the evidence collected, it could not be found that there was a basis to open a full criminal investigation” of the prime minister.
That review had focused on a limited number of accusations of double-billing for reimbursements or forged receipts, such as for an August 2006 flight to London and a September 2006 flight to New York by Netanyahu.
Weinstein accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that the London flight only appeared to be a double-billing because, for practical expediency, his wife Sara’s flight had been marked as paid for by the same source as his flight when, in reality, it was paid for by a separate source.
The New York flight had two sets of reimbursement documents because the same organization had two different names and the first reimbursement documents were canceled when the group asked for the papers to be redone.
However, that was not the end of the matter.
Similarly to the Harpaz Affair, where prior comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss disagreed with Weinstein’s initial decision not to criminally investigate, Shapira decided to keep digging on his own.
Shapira passed on new findings to the attorney-general’s office in May and December 2015.
More recently, Shapira requested that Mandelblit, the new attorney-general as of February, decide whether to criminally probe alleged double-funding, deviations in financing and problems with transparency in El Al’s records regarding the Netanyahu family’s use of state bonus miles for personal travels.
His Tuesday report stops short of demanding that criminal investigation, but he makes it clear that he has brought new evidence to Mandelblit’s attention and heavily hints throughout that only a full criminal probe will clear the cloud of impropriety over the affair.
Reportedly, Shapira suspects Mandelblit of dragging his feet on the issue as he believed Weinstein did.
Shapira’s report reviewed the prime minister’s conduct regarding his flights and flights of his family members overseas. It explicitly notes having left out aspects of the most serious potential criminal charges, some of which go both earlier and later than the 2003-2005 timeframe, since it expects Mandelblit to be reviewing them formally.
The focus was funding for flights provided by non-government sources, such as Israel Bonds, payment of costs by his former bureau chief as finance minister and deficiencies in the process by which the government has approved ministers overseas travel requests.
At the outset, the report summary already notes that it came about because at first blanch Netanyahu’s travels “departed from the rules which apply to the issue.”
The comptroller writes that, like other ministers during that time, Netanyahu never consulted the committee for gifts or for approvals about whether receipt of the funding for the travels, especially from private sector sources, might constitute receiving an illegal gift or benefit.
All that was submitted was a request for approval from the government to take a trip, without providing the details of the trip, the purpose, a list of the family members coming along or the source of the trip’s funding.
This could create the impression of conflicts of interest or other violations, whether any of the funding was illegal or not.
In any event, Shapira said that going forward, before accepting an offer to be flown somewhere, ministers should submit the details of who is financing their trips to these committees to make sure there is no violation.
In discussing the broader issue with the comptroller at a personal hearing in January, Netanyahu took the position that flights financed by a foreign organization were not the same as being financed by a private individual, even if the individual was the one who put out the funds.
Under this approach, the details one is obligated to provide for approvals would be less because there is no special concern that a minister will do something for the individual who paid.
As finance minister, he took 15 trips overseas defined as part of his role as a minister.
Seven of the trips were paid for by the state and eight of the trips were paid for by outside funders.
One-and-a-half flights were paid for by foreign governments, two by Jewish organizations, three-and-a-half by Israel Bonds and one flight from another international organization.
Regarding Sara Netanyahu’s flights being funded by non-government actors to the tune of $50,000, the comptroller said the amounts were far too high especially where she, unlike her husband, was not contributing to any government-related function.
Netanyahu responded that it is accepted custom for spouses of ministers to be flown with them for various functions and that this is doubly true when it comes to the wife of a former prime minister, which he was in the 2003-2005 period.
Another issue was that in some cases, the source of the funding for the prime minister was different than the source for Sara Netanyahu’s flights or for the couple’s children.
In one case which the comptroller was particularly perturbed by, Netanyahu’s bureau chief from when he was finance minister, Yechiel Leiter, used his personal credit card in July 2005 to pay $2,280, covering Netanyahu’ and his two sons costs of travel to England.
Israel Bonds and a businessman identified only as “Businessman B” financed Netanyahu’s sons' flights and hotel expenses on a January 2005 trip to the US and England.
In September 2011, Leiter told a comptroller representative that he did not remember the instance, but that he was “very surprised because of the large sum.” In August 2015, Leiter confirmed in writing that he had used his credit card to pay for the flights, but was reimbursed by Netanyahu.
In January 2016, when Shapira personally questioned the prime minister, he told him that every time Leiter paid for him, he was reimbursed.
Still, Shapira said that government employees should not be paying costs for their superiors, and certainly not when there was no emergency.
The report also criticizes Netanyahu for poor record-keeping regarding who funded the flights of his security detail during his trips.
A statement was sent out on behalf of the Netanyahus referring to the allegations as a “mountain that turned out to be a molehill” and claiming that the prime minister’s critics are trying to hold him to a higher standard than others.
It added that the prime minister’s travels included “no conflicts of interest, no double-billing and nothing illegal.”
The statement added that Shapira had found that Netanyahu had conducted himself the same as other ministers at a time three years prior to more solid rules being established about ministers’ travels in 2008.
Further, it emphasized that Weinstein closed the file previously and that, “We are convinced that the same will happen with the new materials sent to him in 2015.”
The prime minister has been plagued over the years by accusations of misuse of public funds on numerous occasions corresponding to colorful affair titles like “Bedgate” and “Bottlegate.”
However, unlike former prime minister Ehud Olmert who is currently serving at least 18 months in prison for criminal financial violations, none of the allegations against Netanyahu have stuck and none have even led to a criminal probe to date.