Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz told the Knesset State Audit Committee on Wednesday he did not interfere with the professional staff of his ministry and was not aware of all the details of what transpired in the various departments criticized last May by the state comptroller.
Katz addressed the committee in the presence of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss regarding the state comptroller's annual report published last May, which accused the Agricultural Ministry of appointing many party activists to ministry positions.
As a result, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz ordered police to launch an investigation against Katz and other ministry officials into possible criminal activities connected to the appointments.
"Generally speaking, it is impossible to take strong action and to be involved with and lead substantial changes without having the ministry staff carry out their own responsibilities," said Katz. "This is exactly how I operate. I give backing to the staff and respect the authority of the professionals."
Katz said he devoted much of his energy to the reform which brought about the consolidation of public agricultural companies into two units, the Poultry Board and the Flower Board.
In the May report, former State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg accused Katz of appointing two political cronies to head the nascent new boards and sidestepping the need to obtain the approval of the Ravivi Committee, which investigates the qualifications of political appointments. Katz allegedly did this by appointing them as temporary supervisors with all of the prerogatives of directors-general.
Katz explained that he had appointed Michael Eilon to be in charge of the Flower Board and Mordechai Halperin to be in charge of the Poultry Board without initially submitting either name to the Ravivi Committee because the former directors-general of the defunct boards had petitioned against the reform to the High Court of Justice. Katz explained that his legal advisers had told him this was the best way to handle the matter until the High Court ruled on the petitions.
Katz also told the committee that all of the flaws pointed out in the State Comptroller's Report had been corrected and that he had sent two reports to the state comptroller detailing this.
But Katz and his director-general, Yossi Yishai, also told the committee that out of the many political appointments made since Katz took over the ministry, only eight had been dismissed. Two of the eight, Halperin and Eilon, were dismissed on the orders of Mazuz. Six of 16 seasonal workers hired by Eilon in his previous capacity as adviser have lost their jobs and another six are due to stop working in three more months. All of the 16 were either members of the Likud Central Committee or relatives of members. The other four have been found qualified for their jobs.
The chairwoman of the Knesset Audit Committee, Meli Polishook-Bloch (Shinui), called the conduct of the Agriculture Ministry as revealed by the state comptroller "vulgar trampling of proper public administration." Lindenstrauss warned that "improper political appointments in the government create contempt for the public service, can cause damage to the status of the state and lead to the disintegration of government."
He expressed appreciation for the corrections made in the Agriculture Ministry in the wake of the report but warned that "the appointment of people who are unworthy of their positions, especially at a time of sweeping reform as is being implemented in the Agriculture Ministry, can cause serious damage to the economy. One must be very punctilious and not try to cut corners."