The Supreme Court will decide on Tuesday whether Ehud Olmert will become the first prime minister in history to go behind bars, when it announces its decision on his appeal of his spring 2014 bribery conviction and six year jail sentence in the Holyland case.
If the Supreme Court denies the appeal, Olmert goes to jail.
If he wins the appeal, he will reverse a string of losses over the last approximately 18 months and escape the longer of the two jail sentences hanging over his head.
The other jail sentence is a much shorter eight-month term for his fraud conviction in the Talansky retrial this past spring.
The five Supreme Court Justices Salim Joubran, Neal Hendel, Uzi Vogelman, Isaac Amit and Zvi Zilbertal could also uphold Olmert’s conviction, while cutting his jail sentence in half or more. Many observers believe he was given an overly harsh sentence even given the bribery convictions.
Olmert’s appeal itself has already delayed his imprisonment for around 18 months from the May 2014 sentencing date.
In the sentencing decision, Rozen also imposed a fine of NIS 1 million while also ordering authorities to seize NIS 560,000 in funds accumulated by the former premier.
The Holyland trial involved 16 defendants, 13 of whom were convicted of participating in the biggest bribery scheme in the state’s history, including former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski and former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner.
Most of the defendants were powerful Jerusalem public servants who took bribes to smooth over legal and zoning obstacles for the Holyland real estate project in south Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen convicted Olmert of two major bribery offenses.
One was for NIS 500,000 given to his brother, Yossi Olmert, at Ehud Olmert’s request, and the second for NIS 60,000 for his benefit through his confidants Shula Zaken and Uri Messer.
In introducing his sentence, Rozen said that bribery “by its nature, does not limit itself, but spreads out, erodes and causes the collapse of public institutions and the rule of law.”
Referring to Olmert and the other defendants, the court said that “one who takes bribes is in the category of being a traitor – a person who embezzles and who betrays the faith invested in him, faith that without which, no proper public service could exist.”
The court’s use of the word traitor and other extremely harsh metaphorical language, while obviously not referring to much more serious crimes like spying, was attacked by Olmert and other Holyland defendants as showing that Rozen’s view of case was biased or at least on the extremes in the interpretations he applied.
A central tenet of Olmert’s appeal was lambasting the lead state witness, Shmuel Duchner, as extremely untrustworthy because of his admissions of lying to the court and forging documents presented to the court, and it argued that all of his testimony should have been completely thrown out, not cherry- picked.
The state’s opposition to the appeal responded that the court only relied on Duchner’s testimony to supplement the prosecution’s case where there was independent evidence to prove its arguments.
On another issue, Olmert’s legal team did a dramatic U-turn on appeal, denying that his brother Yossi had ever received the NIS 500,000 bribe.
At trial, it appeared at most times that Ehud agreed that Yossi had received the funds, but disputed whether Ehud knew about it, arguing his innocence based on the claim that Duchner deposited the funds with Yossi without telling him.
The root of the argument that Yossi did not receive funds is that despite both Duchner and Yossi admitting that the fund transfer took place, no one has traced down any paperwork in any of the relevant bank accounts that proves this.
This new argument appeared to receive little sympathy from the Supreme Court justices, who viewed it as changing their narrative too late in the game.
Regarding the six-year jail sentence, Rozen noted that Olmert was an extremely talented man who had made a great contribution to the state through his public service.
However, he said that his hands were tied by law to certain set punishment guidelines without discretion, noting a protest to the Knesset that an amendment binding judges’ sentencing to mandatory guidelines should be overturned.
Rozen said that Olmert was guilty of “moral turpitude,” meaning that he would not be allowed to reenter politics for at least seven years after whenever he exits jail.
In contrast, Olmert’s appeal called the sentence unprecedentedly harsh, especially since it said that neither of the bribes he was convicted of were ones from which he personally benefited.
The written appeal criticized Rozen for punishing Olmert for his high office and only giving lip-service to his positive contributions to the state as a factor for a more lenient sentence, such as community service.
Hillel Cherny, the key initiator behind the Holyland real estate project, who was convicted of bribing officials to advance the project, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, though the state had sought nine years.
Shmuel Duchner was Cherny’s key middle man and operator with the politicians.
However, Duchner, before dying in March 2013, turned state’s witness and was the backbone of the state’s case.
The two and others bribed officials in exchange for their smoothing over zoning and legal obstacles for the Holyland real estate project in south Jerusalem, mostly from the mid-1990s until a few years into the 2000s, when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and then Minister of Infrastructure, Trade and Industry.
Other prominent defendants convicted included former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, Olmert’s former top aide Shula Zaken, Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner and a line of other former Jerusalem officials – sentenced to between 3.5 to 7 years.
While Olmert was acquitted on multiple other bribery charges, the receiving of indirect bribes for NIS 60,000 via Zaken and confidant Uri Messer and NIS 500,000 via his brother Yossi, stuck with the court.
In its verdict, the court said that Zaken had been Olmert’s “right hand.”
It added that it was not believable that she was receiving such large sums of money (the court said that he probably would have convicted Olmert of even larger sums, but some of the funds were outdated by the statute of limitations), some of which benefited his election fundraising, without her informing him.
Rozen said that Zaken even got convicted in the prior Jerusalem corruption trial rather than testify against Olmert, showing how close and in tandem the two were.
On the NIS 500,000 in bribes given to Yossi Olmert, Ehud’s brother, to help pay off his debts, the court completely rejected Ehud’s story that he did not know that Duchner gave the money to Yossi.
The court added that there was no reason for Duchner to give Yossi money except at Ehud’s request since they did not know each other.
Rozen said that Duchner was always careful to make sure sponsors like Olmert knew he had given bribes to secure their help with the Holyland project.
Winning on appeal was always a long-shot since much of Olmert’s conviction rested on findings of fact and Rozen’s impression of the witnesses with most judges loathing to reverse lower court rulings on such issues as opposed to issues of legal interpretation.
Besides the Holyland appeal, Olmert is still waiting to hear from the Supreme Court on his appeal in the Talansky retrial for fraud and an eight month jail sentence.