Police believe the suspected money-laundering and tax evasion scheme at a Ramle branch of Mercantile Discount Bank is worth more than NIS 1 billion, making it one of the biggest such conspiracies in Israel's history.
On Monday, officers in the Shfela region arrested six more people on suspicion of being involved in the affair, bringing to 29 the number arrested. During a search in the home of one of the latest suspects, police confiscated more than NIS 100,000 in cash and foreign currency as well as documents linking the suspect to the scheme.
Police first disclosed details of the investigation at the beginning of this month, when they arrested 22 people, including branch manager Yossi Zer and his assistant Yitzhak Marciono. The latter is the central figure in the affair, said Inspector Ezra Goldstein, who is leading the investigation.
Police have also arrested former branch manager Eliezer Cohen and have investigated most of its employees, said Goldstein.
"The deputy manager told the workers not to record the details of those who withdrew the money, so they did as he instructed," Goldstein said.
He added that police believe the scheme started six years ago, long before Zer became the branch manager in the middle of last year. "Both the manager and the former manager knew what was going on and they closed their eyes to it," Goldstein said.
He also explained how Marciono used fictitious accounts and those of innocent customers to carry out the money-laundering. In one case, the deputy manager told a customer that his account no longer was operational and then proceeded to use it to launder millions of shekels deposited by the customer's brother. "We showed the customer what had happened and he was in shock," said Goldstein.
The first set of arrests followed a three-and-a-half month undercover operation in which police used hidden cameras to observe the activities at the branch. Detectives saw known criminals enter the bank and give Marciono checks that they had received as payment for illegal activities, including gambling, violence and blackmail.
Goldstein declined to identify the main non-bank protagonists behind the scheme other than to say that they are local players and that most of the suspects have admitted their involvement. Police believe that neither other banks nor Mercantile's national management are connected to the affair, although bank spokesman Eyal Dvora declined to comment on the latest developments, other than to note that the bank has been providing its full cooperation.
The investigation into Mercantile in Ramle comes a year after police said they had uncovered a money-laundering scheme worth hundreds of millions of dollars at a Bank Hapoalim branch in Tel Aviv.