Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday did and did not take responsibility in the same breath for the scandal in which the Defense Ministry paid NIS 527,000 for 16 guests at the Intercontinental Hotel, the most expensive in the French capital, during a four-night stay to attend the Paris Air Salon in June.
"It was a foul-up," Barak told the Knesset State Control Committee during a meeting to discuss State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's investigation of the affair, which was published last month. "I am the one who is responsible. I am responsible for everything. Only those who do also make mistakes."
But Barak added, "There is no way the minister of defense can follow these matters. I do not order rooms myself. I knew I would sleep in this hotel. I have been taking part in the travels of heads of state for the past 25 years. These are the hotels that the ministers of foreign affairs and defense ministers use. [Ariel] Sharon, [Yitzhak] Shamir, [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Shimon] Peres, [Moshe] Arens and [Yitzhak] Mordechai stayed in the same hotels."
According to the state comptroller's report, the suite that Barak and his wife, Nili Priel, stayed in cost about NIS 14,000 per night. Although they only slept in it for four nights, the length of their stay, they were charged for six, so that the cost of the lodging was effectively about NIS 21,000 per night. The entire entourage paid for six nights but stayed only four.
Barak said he was responsible that such a thing would not recur.
"I became aware of the problem while in Paris," he said. "I spoke to the ministry director-general immediately afterwards and we established a committee to investigate how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again."
Barak presented to the committee a new Defense Ministry directive meant to solve the problem.
Deputy director-general Yekutiel Mor told the MKs that until now, the Defense Ministry mission in Paris had always been responsible for ordering the rooms for the delegation. From now on, the work would be done from Tel Aviv.
In his report, Lindenstrauss found that the underlying reason for the foul-up in Paris had been that the mission had begun looking for hotels too late and therefore the Intercontinental was the only one still available that met the necessary criteria. Furthermore, the hotel would only rent the rooms if the entourage paid for six nights even though it only needed them for four.
Altogether, the Defense Ministry paid NIS 527,000 for the 16-person entourage and another NIS 417,000 in hotel costs for the 34-person professional delegation, which stayed at a less expensive hotel.
Lindenstrauss pointed to two specific problems which had led to the Paris fiasco. First, he told the committee members, there were no official restrictions on the amount of money ministers could spend on official trips. Second, with regard to Barak's trip, a series of mistakes was made in the process of reserving the rooms for the minister and his guests.
Furthermore, said Lindenstrauss, while the accountants of all the other ministries must approve excessive expenditures on foreign travel, because their budgets are relatively small, there has been no one responsible for keeping an eye on the money spent by the Defense Ministry because its budget is so huge.
MK Nahman Shai urged the committee to support a bill he had initiated to establish regulations dealing with trips by ministers abroad.
Meanwhile, the committee resolved to hold a discussion two months after the next Paris Air Salon to see whether the Defense Ministry had solved the problems that led to this year's fiasco.