A senior Jerusalem councilman on Thursday morning said he suspected the Holyland real estate affair was “just the start” and called on authorities to investigate a number of other massive building projects which received the blessing of the municipality in recent years and may be tainted with corruption.
Councilman Meir Turgeman, the head of the opposition faction in the Jerusalem municipal council, told Israel Radio he feared politicians who approved plans to build at the YMCA compound, the Gilo Uptown project and Mamilla neighborhood. may have received kickbacks.
On Wednesday, the police investigation into suspected massive bribery in the Holyland real estate affair took a dramatic turn when detectives from the National Fraud Unit arrested former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski on suspicion of accepting more than NIS 3 million in bribes to ensure that the housing plan was approved, and of money laundering.
According to police suspicions, between 1999 and 2008, the Holyland development company and associated land development projects, then owned by businessman Hillel Charni, paid tens of millions of shekels in bribes through intermediaries to senior public decision makers in the Jerusalem Municipality, members of its planning and construction committee, the Israel Lands Administration and others, in exchange for their approval for the Holyland housing project in the Malha neighborhood and additional developments in the North.
Lupolianski was deputy mayor and chairman of the municipality’s planning and construction committee between 1993 and 2003, when the Holyland plan was approved. He went on to become a member of the National Building and Planning Committee when he was mayor from 2003 to 2008.
According to police suspicions, by 1999, Lupolianski had accepted NIS 1.5m. in bribes that he received “though another suspect.”
The illicit money was allegedly transferred to Lupolianski in the form of a donation to the Yad Sarah charity for disabled and elderly people, which he founded in 1976.
A Yad Sarah representative released a statement on Wednesday saying that the organization had “nothing to do with the Holyland affair and has never taken a bribe.”
A second alleged transfer of bribes took place between 2006 and 2008, when the Lupolianski allegedly received NIS 1.4m.
During a remand hearing held for Lupolianski at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday evening, the police representative, Ch.-Supt. Lior Rice, said additional instances of bribery were being investigated, including the transfer of $30,000 to Lupolianski, which he allegedly paid to political field activists to help secure his 2003 mayoral election win. Police also suspect Lupolianski accepted NIS 100,000 in bribes in 2005, as a “donation” to a religious educational center managed by his son.
In return for the cash, police suspect, Lupolianski exploited his positions to promote an enlarged version of the Holyland project within the municipal Construction and Planning Committee, and resisted calls to lower the height of the Holyland residential towers by two stories. He also allegedly helped ensure that almost 1,000 objections to the plan were overruled.
“The suspect was supposed to safeguard the public interest, but in reality he strayed from it,” Rice said. “He saved the project’s backers millions of shekels in expenses and led to the expansion of the project and a significant increase in profit for its backers.”
Judge Avraham Haiman of the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court extended Lupolianski’s custody by five days.
Speaking to Channel 10 News on Tuesday, Lupolianski appeared to attempt to shift responsibility to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem between 1993 and 2003 – when Holyland was approved.
“The mayor is the one who decides, that is the truth,” Lupolianski said. “The deputy mayor has no responsibility.”
Lupolianski’s attorney, Yair Golan, said his client had denied all suspicions against him, had consistently presented receipts for donations received to Yad Sarah and did not attempt to hide the identity of donors.
Meanwhile, anticipating an invitation to the police interrogation room, Olmert cut short a trip abroad and arrived in Israel on Wednesday night, where he is reportedly set to be questioned over the Holyland bribery investigation.
“In light of the growing number of reports, according to which police are seeking to question Olmert on his alleged involvement in the Holyland affair, Olmert decided to return to Israel tonight,” a statement released by Olmert’s spokesman, Amir Dan, said on Wednesday.
“Olmert denies any link to the affair, but has publicly stated last week that he is available for any questioning,” the statement said. “We’ve already seen how large headlines at the start of an investigation change radically with time, when the real facts begin to come to light,” it continued.
A source associated with Olmert told The Jerusalem Post
on Wednesday that the ex-premier was keen to avoid giving the impression that he was “evading questioning.”
On Wednesday night, Israel Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen spoke at an award ceremony for police excellence held at Tel Aviv University, and described the alleged corruption affair as “widespread and very worrying.”
“Corruption within the authorities undermines the foundations of a state built on the rule of law,” he said. Public officials suspected of corruption in the investigation abused their power and exploited their public office “for their own personal benefit,” he added.
Addressing critics of the police investigation, Cohen said, “As someone who knows the details of the affair, I advise them to watch what they say.”
Cohen offered his full backing to the National Fraud Unit and to the Israel Police’s Investigations Branch, which he said carried a “huge burden on its shoulders.”
“This is bad news for the city of Jerusalem,” Mayor Nir Barkat said in a statement on Wednesday night. “I hope the truth comes to light.”
“The Jerusalem Municipality will continue to assist the police in its investigation as needed,” Barkat said.
Haiman extended the custody of five of the suspects on Tuesday. During the questioning of one of the suspects this week, detectives from the National Fraud Unit presented documents bearing the initials “E.O.,” and asked the suspect if he knew who bore the initials. The suspect replied that he did not.
Former Olmert associate Uri Messer, suspected as acting as an intermediary between bribe givers and takers and transferring hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, is scheduled to appear before court on Thursday for a third remand hearing.
“We do not yet know whether police will seek to keep Messer in custody or release him,” a source associated with Messer told the Post
.Abe Selig contributed to this report.
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