Bat Yam Mayor Lahiani.
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
The High Court of Justice on Sunday fired Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani due to his pending indictment on bribery charges, less than two days before municipal elections are set to take place.
Despite the High Court’s decision to remove Lahiani from office, it did not preclude him from running in Tuesday’s election, saying it did not have authority under current laws to do so, though the court said, “we are uncomfortable” with that result. If Lahiani wins the Bat Yam election, he could return to office in the near future. If that occurs, it is unclear if a new petition would be brought and the court would once again force him from office.
The picture is particularly unclear in light of a current proposal by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to temporarily suspend local officials under indictment, as opposed to removing them from office entirely.
Earlier at the High Court hearing, Lahiani’s lawyers said that judicial intervention less than two days before the election would be highly problematic. According to his attorneys, the court would then be unavoidably and inappropriately influencing the public’s votes.
Lahiani’s lawyers even cited a recent High Court opinion on a virtually identical issue dealing with mayors from Upper Nazareth and Ramat Hasharon under indictment.
In that case the court discussed its obligation to respect the people’s right to choose for themselves.
His lawyers highlighted how late in the game the decision was, citing that by the time the decision came out, some soldiers doing early voting would already have voted. They added that the state had unnecessarily delayed the indictment in a way that the trial could not be finished before the election.
But the court ruled in favor of the state, which said it was “extremely unreasonable” to allow Lahiani to remain as mayor and that since the Bat Yam’s City Council had failed to carry out its duty to depose him, the court was stuck upholding “purity of ethics” for public servants by removing him.
The state said Lahiani’s fate should mirror that of the mayors of Upper Nazareth and Ramat Hasharon who were forced to step down by the High Court because they were facing indictments. In fact, the state argued that the indictment against Lahiani included crimes even graver than those charged against the other mayors whom the court had ordered to step down.
Supreme Court President Asher D. Grunis hinted how the court would rule when he said that the Bat Yam City Council’s failure to fire Lahiani and his failure to step down seemed to be “playing games” with the court’s recent unequivocally clear decision on the issue of mayors needing to step down upon indictment.
The High Court’s rationale for compelling the mayors to step down was based on an interpretation of the potentially applicable laws, expanding a trend to make public officials step down if they have sufficiently severe charges filed against them. At the same time, the High Court said that the Knesset simply had not legislated a rule prohibiting persons indicted for a crime to run for election, prohibiting only those convicted of crimes carrying a finding of moral turpitude.
One difference between Sunday’s ruling to remove Lahiani and the earlier High Court ruling to remove the other mayors was that in the prior ruling, Grunis dissented from the majority opinion about removing the mayors.
In this case, Grunis voted with the majority, signaling the need to respect the High Court’s new precedent in this area of law.
Lahiani was indicted for allegedly taking between NIS 800-NIS 900,000 in bribes, starting in 2005, to advance the interests of local businessmen in Bat Yam and asking nine municipality employees to take bank loans and transfer the money to him. He is also accused of a conflict of interest for holding partial ownership in a local newspaper from which the Bat Yam Municipality bought advertising space.
Prior to the indictment, Lahiani was considered a highly popular mayor and was credited with a level of revitalization of Bat Yam.