'It didn’t occur to me that we were doing anything wrong'

Travel agency boss describes convoluted process for submitting Olmert’s invoices.

June 11, 2010 02:38
2 minute read.
Olmert poses for the media before reading a statem

Olmert reads statement 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Taking the stand at the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday morning, Ayala Travel Agency CEO Michael Azoulay testified in the ongoing Rishon Tours corruption trial, in which former prime minister Ehud Olmert is alleged to have funneled government funds through a series of travel agencies to purchase private flights abroad for himself and his family.

According to the indictment, Ayala was one of the businesses that acted as an intermediary for transferring money between the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and Rishon Tours, the travel agency at the center of the scandal. As part of his testimony, Azoulay detailed some of the methods that were employed to carry out the transfers, and said that the manager of Rishon Tours, Yossi Klinger, had contacted him in August 2003 and asked him to submit invoices for Olmert’s travel expenses to the ministry, which totaled some $72,000.

“This is a man who I always considered to be serious and reliable,” Azoulay said of Klinger during Thursday’s proceedings. “He told me that he had a problem, and explained that his boss was a personal friend of Olmert’s, who had served him during his time [as mayor] at the Jerusalem Municipality and for decades before that.”

According to Azoulay, Klinger told him that because of those connections, he couldn’t collect the money himself, and asked Azoulay to submit the invoices, collect the money and pass it along to him.

“I told him that there were conditions, and that he had to give us a nine percent discount [on future transactions between the two travel agencies],” Azoulay added. “He said that he had no problem with that.”

Azoulay added that he had also told Klinger that he would take one percent of the invoices, as a part of the deal. “And he agreed to that as well,” Azoulay said.

Deputy District Attorney Uri Korev, who cross examined Azoulay on Thursday, asked him if such requests were considered acceptable in the travel industry, and if not, why he went along with them anyway.

“I believed [Klinger] to be a trustworthy person,” Azoulay repeated. “And it didn’t occur to me that we were doing anything wrong. I would like to emphasize however, that I make a lot of decisions, and this is one decision that I’m not happy with.”

Asked later how he had described the transactions to investigators, Azoulay acknowledged that he had told them, “it was more or less a way to ‘kasher the sheretz’ [a play on Jewish religious legalese for making clean what is unclean].”

Azoulay added that at first, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry had refused to pay the expenses and began asking questions about the flights. According to Azoulay, he then wrote letters to ministry officials with the assistance of Klinger and Rachel Risby-Raz, Olmert’s travel coordinator, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the ministry’s accountant.

In response to the claims on Thursday, Olmert’s defense team said that Azoulay “is a person that Olmert was never connected to. He had no knowledge of [Azoulay’s] actions.”

“He is, by his confession, a business fraud, and this has nothing to do with Olmert,” the defense’s statement concluded.

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