Following the interrogation of suspects involved in the Ramle Mercantile Discount Bank money-laundering scheme, in which 22 people where arrested some two weeks ago, police estimated on Monday that the affair would go down as perhaps the largest white-collar crime in Israel's history.
Initial estimates put the amount of laundered money over the years somewhere in the ballpark of NIS 100 million, but those numbers have now ballooned to an estimated NIS 1 billion, according to police investigators.
Six more suspects, who allegedly operated fake accounts at the bank, were also arrested Sunday night. Police confiscated cars, valuable objects and $100,000 dollars from the suspects.
Following the three and a half month undercover investigation, police raided the branch two weeks ago and collected documents. They also arrested branch manager Yossi Zer, his assistant Yitzhak Marciono, and one other employee, as well as 19 residents of the central region, said bank spokesman Eyal Dvora and Inspector Ezra Goldstein, who worked on the case.
"We received intelligence information that the deputy manager was carrying out money-laundering," Goldstein said.
"We went to the district court to get a court order that allowed us to put hidden cameras in the branch," he said, adding that the police worked in co-operation with the bank's central management and the Tax Authority.
From the surveillance, police saw known criminals enter the branch and give Marciono checks that they had received as payment for illegal activities, including gambling, violence and blackmail.
"He placed the money in fictitious accounts and then returned it to them in cash," said Goldstein, adding that Zer knew about his deputy's activities.
Zer and Marciono, who are in their forties and fifties respectively, have been Mercantile employees for many years, although Zer only became the manager of the Ramle branch a few months ago, said Dvora.
The outlet was closed on Wednesday but Dvora said he expects it to reopen on Thursday, adding that neither customer accounts, nor the bank's financial performance, will be affected.
"The source of the money was one that was not legal, but they didn't take money from the bank," said Dvora. Mercantile, which is a unit of Israel Discount Bank, said last week that 2005 net profit rose to NIS 111m. from NIS 103m. in the same period a year earlier.
The arrests in Ramle come a year after the police announced that they had uncovered a money-laundering scheme worth hundreds of millions of dollars at a Bank Hapoalim branch in Tel Aviv. Goldstein said there was no connection between the Mercantile case and the one with Hapoalim, or with a gambling network that the family of Likud MK Inbal Gavrieli is suspected of operating.