Olmert reads statement 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is viewed by police as the chief suspect in the Holyland bribery affair, it emerged on Thursday, after police lifted what was left of a media ban on details of the investigation.
The scandal revolves around businessman Hillel Charni, who allegedly paid tens of millions of shekels in bribes to senior Jerusalem Municipality officials in exchange for their approval of changes to and the expansion of the Holyland housing project in the capital.
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Olmert, who was mayor when the Holyland project was approved in 1999, promptly and vehemently denied involvement in the affair.
In a brief televised statement, he called the allegations an unprecedented “attempt at character assassination,” but thanked police for lifting the gag order on his alleged involvement.
“I firmly declare, I was never offered a bribe, never accepted a bribe from anyone in any way, ether directly or indirectly,” said Olmert, who had been abroad and arrived back in Israel early Thursday morning.
He said rumors had been spread about him that were “baseless and don’t contain an ounce of truth.”
Olmert then appeared to place the blame for the affair on his successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who was arrested on Wednesday for alleged bribe-taking and other offenses.
The former prime minister said that he had backed the Holyland project from the start, when the plans had been for three hotels to boost tourism and a few hundred housing units for the non-haredi public, but that the project had been radically “changed after my tenure. I had no hand in those changes.”
He called on the public and media to “respect the investigation, don’t prejudge, don’t draw unjustified conclusions and don’t assist with the perversion of the course of justice.”
The explicit news of Olmert’s alleged involvement came after yet another senior Jerusalem Municipality figure, City Councillor Eli Simhayoff (Shas), was arrested on Wednesday night on suspicion of taking bribes.
Simhayoff, a former deputy mayor, is also a director of the Danya Cebus construction company, a subsidiary of Africa Israel Investments.
Police said Simhayoff was suspected of “taking the initiative and demanding” hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribe money for himself, and after allegedly receiving the cash, he “divided it between himself and others in the municipality.”
Simhayoff’s attorney, Moshe Yitzhak Osditsher, said his client was innocent of any wrongdoing, and expressed outrage over “the fact that the central suspect in the investigation, Ehud Olmert, has not yet been even called in for questioning” while Simhayoff and several additional suspects were under arrest.
Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court Judge Avraham Haiman, however, said Osditsher’s claims were “irrelevant” to the case at hand. He added, “From the material available to me, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are looking at the corruption of authority, based on a group of people guided by lust for wealth, and who stole public assets which they were entrusted to protect.”
Haiman said the affair involved “bribery that penetrated every sphere,” and extended Simhayoff’s custody by eight days.
Meanwhile, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said on Thursday that although he would not be able to be involved in the criminal aspects of the Holyland affair, there were also civil and administrative aspects that he was not barred from handling.
Weinstein was one of Olmert’s lawyers before being appointed attorney-general and signed a conflict-of-interest agreement barring him from dealing with criminal cases involving his former client.
According to a statement issued by the Justice Ministry on Thursday
evening, Weinstein held a meeting to discuss the Holyland affair with
State Attorney Moshe Lador and senior ministry and police officials.
The statement said that “the police reviewed the principal findings in
the investigation so far, and the participants discussed the measures
to be taken. They also discussed various administrative and civil
issues stemming from the affair and their future significance and
“These aspects will be dealt with by Justice Ministry officials headed
by the attorney-general, the state attorney and the relevant deputy
state attorneys,” the statement said.
Dan Izenberg and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.