Prosecutors failed on Sunday, the first day of the trial in the Rishon Tours affair, to establish a direct connection between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the instructions conveyed by his staff that involved double-billing organizations, most of them philanthropic, when he spoke on their behalf abroad.
However, one witness directly linked his bureau chief, Shula Zaken, to the alleged double- and triple-billing system.
Before the Jerusalem District Court hearing began, Olmert, who is now suspected of accepting bribes while serving as mayor of Jerusalem for allegedly promoting the Holyland project, went on the offensive and blasted his accusers.
“The fact is,” he said in a prepared statement, “that for the past month and more, an organized hunting campaign is being mounted against me, a brutal witch hunt, cruel, merciless, the kind that has never before existed in Israel. It reached its height last week, when a police officer in court concocted a story that the suspect Shula Zaken transferred more than NIS 1 million to me in bribe money.
“If these things were true, how is it that for the past three weeks no one has spoken to me, asked me questions, interrogated me, contacted me. Nothing. If these things are unfounded, baseless and have not a single fact to support them, as these are, how could a police officer appear in court and say them?”
Olmert charged that the law enforcement agencies were violating his human rights and the principle of the presumption of innocence.
“It has reached the extreme point where there are those who say it doesn’t matter whether he is acquitted and that nothing is proved against him in court. He is guilty. He is finished. He is destroyed,” the former prime minister said.
Olmert added that the reports in the media that he was being investigated in the US on suspicion that he had smuggled out the alleged bribe money and was using it to pay debts belonging to his brother, Yossi, who fled Israel several years ago because of them, were ridiculous.RELATED:
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During the hearing that followed, the state called a number of witnesses who had served as officials in the organizations that were allegedly double-billed and who were responsible for organizing the trips.
One of them was Bracha Hadar, who was at the time in charge of organizing events abroad for Keren Hayesod. According to the indictment, between May 5 and May 14, 2005, Olmert traveled to the Far East, the US (Las Vegas) and Canada on state business and on behalf of Keren Hayesod and Aleh Canada.
Keren Hayesod asked him to appear at a special event in Las Vegas, which it sponsored together with the United Jewish Communities.
According to the indictment, Olmert flew from Tel Aviv to Las Vegas to Toronto to Ottawa to Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok and back to Tel Aviv.
Rishon Tours allegedly charged the state NIS 45,433 for tickets for Olmert and his wife, Aliza, for the leg of the journey from Toronto to Tel Aviv. It also allegedly charged Keren Hayesod $13,048 for a return trip from Tel Aviv to Las Vegas for Olmert and a bodyguard. Aleh Canada allegedly paid $14,287 for tickets for Olmert and his bodyguard.
The state charged that the ticket Olmert bought actually cost $16,639 and that by charging each of the three institutions, he pocketed $10,696.
Hadar testified in court that she had asked Rachel Raz-Risbi, who was responsible for Olmert’s appearances abroad, for a detailed itinerary of the minister’s trip, adding that she had heard he was flying to other destinations as well. Raz-Risbi refused to provide it.
“Raz-Risbi said his other flights had nothing to do with this one,” Hadar said. “She said it wouldn’t cost us more.”
“I tried to stand up to her, but she would not budge,” Hadar continued. “I asked her if Olmert was attending other events. She said yes. I then said perhaps we could make a deal to share the expenses with the other organizations.”
Hadar said that Raz-Risbi replied, “One has nothing to do with other. It doesn’t cost you more.”
She added that Raz-Risbi told her that if Keren Hayesod did not agree to these terms, Olmert would not come to its event.
When Hadar protested, Raz-Risbi allegedly handed the phone to Zaken, Olmert’s bureau chief, who has also been indicted in the Rishon Tours affair. According to Hadar, Zaken told her the same thing. “One has nothing to do with the other, it doesn’t make the ticket more expensive, there’s no connection between them.”
Hadar’s testimony marked the first time that Zaken herself was directly implicated in the alleged double-billing system. Her lawyer, Micha Fetman, later tried to unravel the witness’s testimony by arguing that she did not remember the events and that Raz-Risbi was the only one who had told Hadar that the way Keren Hayesod was charged did not make the cost to her organization any higher.
Hadar also testified that it was common practice for organizations to
share the costs of sending a speaker abroad if he was going to appear
at more than one event.
Danny Baram, who is in charge of foreign relations for AKIM – The
National Association for the Habilitation of the Mentally Handicapped
in Israel, testified that it was much cheaper to pay for Olmert’s
flight and lodging than to hire more world-renowned speakers, including
Binyamin Netanyahu. When Akim approached Netanyahu, who did not hold
office at the time, to speak on the organization’s behalf abroad,
Netanyahu demanded $50,000. “This was an unethical demand and we
dropped the matter,” Baram said.
According to the indictment, Akim paid $5,675 for Olmert’s flight to
the event in New York. Another organization paid him $2,000 for the