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In what police called the first operation of its kind, 28 people were arrested Wednesday in a crackdown against criminal involvement in bottle recycling.
Although this phenomenon has garnered a certain amount of coverage in recent months, particularly after top-level underworld figures had very public fisticuffs over the subject, Wednesday's operation represented a new level in the police struggle against the issue.
In addition to the arrests, it was also revealed that six police officers were also investigated by the Justice Ministry's Police Investigative Department (PID) for different levels of involvement in the bottle-recycling rings. In the end, only one of them was considered to be a criminal suspect, after allegedly passing information to criminal elements.
Police officers from the National Financial Crimes Unit (NFCU) together with Income Tax Authorities, VAT (Value Added Tax) authorities, Israel Police and Border Police worked for six months to crack the case. On Wednesday morning, following the over two dozen arrests, police revealed that the detainees were suspected of extortion through threats, fraudulent receipt of an item, malicious destruction, arson, giving and taking bribes, assault and income tax and VAT fraud.
The two chief suspects are suspected of claiming refunds for many more bottles than they had actually collected.
During what police have described as a "complex" investigation, information was gathered regarding two large bottle-collecting operations which "succeeded using complicated systems of bribery, extortion, threats, assault and arson of vehicles to enlist the drivers of the bottle-transport trucks as well as oversight workers at the corporation to cooperate in the defrauding of the corporation," said a NECU representative Wednesday.
The bottle collectors receive the 25 agurot deposit return for each bottle collected, but are also rewarded a three agurot bonus per bottle when they maintain a high collection rate. Police say that to do so, the collectors cheated the corporation to the tune of millions of shekels by stating a much higher number of bottles collected than the amount actually gathered. To succeed in the scheme, drivers and bottle count supervisors were enlisted to make sure that there would be agreement in the forged quantity of bottles delivered in each truckload.
These employees allegedly received bribes to secure their collaboration, and police said that any who did not agree to cooperate fell prey to a barrage of threats, assaults and property damage.
At one point in the investigation, police "planted" an undercover officer as a company inspector. When the undercover cop refused to cooperate with the bottle collectors' demands, he received threats, and on one occasion, his car was set aflame.
Detectives emphasized that in addition to the criminal offenses, the investigators also uncovered instances of tax fraud totaling millions of shekels, as the collectors failed to report a large percentage of their income.
In 2006, police isolated the bottle recycling industry as a specific crime phenomenon, noting that in many cases, the lucrative trade had been taken over by crime syndicates. The NECU has been recently tasked with trying to pinpoint specific criminal phenomena - such as this one - and arranging the cooperation of all necessary authorities to address both white-collar crime as well as violent crime.
The unit began operations to crack the criminals' hold on the industry, and began gathering intelligence information as well as evidence, later also calling in ITA investigators.
During the investigation, detectives said, they discovered that "criminal elements" had been defrauding the Collecting for the Environment corporation - which runs bottle recycling centers - of large amounts of money.
During the investigation, which involved an undercover border policeman, it was revealed that the suspects had allegedly cheated the company out of millions of shekels.
Collecting for the Environment's Chairwoman Nehama Ronen also turned to the police, filing a complaint that she suspected that the corporation had been defrauded and funds had been stolen in sums of hundreds of thousands of shekels. Ronen assisted the NECU investigators throughout the remainder of the investigation.