(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The legal world was shocked on Thursday when the state charged attorney Yaakov Weinroth, one of the country's leading lawyers and a specialist in white-collar crimes, with bribery and money-laundering.
Weinroth is accused of providing legal services without charge or for an unusually low fee on behalf of an assessor in the Gush Dan branch of the Tax Authority.
At the same time the assessor, Yehoshua Vita, who is also included in the indictment, handled various applications by Weinroth regarding his own finances and those of clients, including Uzbekistan-born Israeli entrepreneur and industrialist Michael Cherney and Russian-Israeli Arkadi Gaydamak, who paid Weinroth more than NIS 30 million in legal fees for his tax work on their behalf.
Vita was also charged with fraud and breach of faith, while Weinroth was also indicted for allegedly violating the money-laundering law. He was accused of concealing the fact that an account-in-trust that he opened in his own name was actually meant for Gaydamak.
Weinroth allegedly hid that fact out of concern that the police might seize the funds in the account if they knew they belonged to Gaydamak, in the context of their criminal investigation against him.
Over the years, Weinroth has represented Binyamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, the jailed former finance minister Avraham Hirchson and numerous other high-profile Israeli figures.
Weinroth's lawyer, Navot Tel-Tzur, denied the charges, saying, "The state prosecution had set a new record in filing baseless indictments lacking any foundation."
He also said he protested "the prosecution's concept of creating legal precedents by piling all kinds of vague crimes on the backs of defendants."
According to the charge sheet, Vita originally asked Weinroth to represent him in a criminal case in 1997. At the time, the attorney refused. Later Weinroth and his brothers submitted applications to Vita, in his capacity as an assessment officer in the Tax Authority, to assess their taxes.
This time, when Vita asked Weinroth to represent him, Weinroth agreed. He sent a letter to the president, requesting a pardon for Vita, and did not charge him for the legal work.
This, according to the indictment, was one of three "gifts" that Weinroth gave Vita.
Later Weinroth presented additional tax files to be assessed by Vita in his professional capacity. Then, on January 7, 2003, Vita asked Weinroth to appeal to the state attorney so that, despite his criminal record, he would be eligible for promotion to the post of deputy income tax commissioner. Weinroth took on the assignment personally and again did not charge Vita. This was Weinroth's second "gift."
Later that year, Gaydamak also became Weinroth's client. Meanwhile, the state attorney informed Weinroth that he opposed Vita's promotion.
According to the indictment, knowing that Vita would need his services again, he submitted Gaydamak's file to him and asked for an assessment.
At the same time, at Vita's request, Weinroth prepared the draft of a letter to be sent to the attorney-general to appeal the state attorney's decision. This time, Weinroth charged Vita NIS 2,000, but Vita did not pay the fee.
Meanwhile, Gaydamak paid Weinroth NIS 16m. for his work in obtaining the tax assessment from Vita. Previously Cherney had paid Weinroth NIS 14m. for his services.
After the Gaydamak file was completed, Weinroth charged Vita NIS 20,000 for all the work he had done for him, to be paid in 20 installments of NIS 1,000 each.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Tel-Tzur said that the fee Weinroth demanded from Vita was appropriate.
"Weinroth is known as a lawyer who takes on cases pro bono, charity cases," he said.
When the interviewer challenged him, saying that Vita was a senior civil servant, not a charity case, and one whom Weinstein must have known he might have dealings with regarding his tax files, Tel-Tzur replied, "That's correct, and that is why Weinroth took a fee that was appropriate from a salaried civil servant. It is a lawyer's privilege to ask for a fee in consideration of his client's means as well as the type and extent of the work involved."
According to Tel-Tzur, a lawyer does not charge thousands of shekels for writing "one-and-a-half letters and attending one meeting."