lahiani sharp yet b&w 88.
(photo credit: )
In February 1999, then Labor prime-ministerial candidate Ehud Barak discovered a little-known Bat Yam contractor, Shlomi Lahiani, whose main claim to fame was losing the November 1998 mayoral contest in his socioeconomically challenged city. Barak praised Lahiani as a grassroots reformer and surefire magnet for the blue-collar Sephardi vote. He arbitrarily promised to parachute Lahiani to the eleventh slot of Labor's Knesset list, rebranded One Israel. However, having redeemed Lahiani from anonymity and catapulted him to national prominence, Barak soon reneged on his undertaking. Lahiani's career nonetheless skyrocketed. He handily won the next two municipal showdowns - in 2003 and 2008.
In no time, Lahiani's name became synonymous with Bat Yam and his popularity there soared. He is still widely applauded in the town - even after the police earlier this week detained him (with galling gratuitous fanfare, before invited TV crews), arrested his relatives and top cronies, raided his home and office and leveled against him corruption charges of unprecedented severity. To be sure, plenty of other mayors were previously investigated - some even charged and convicted - but nothing comes close to the dimensions of the Lahiani affair.
The police allege that Lahiani used city resources to line his own and his family's pockets, to a quite remarkable degree. Lahiani's contracting firm went bankrupt and accrued debts of over NIS 35 million, mostly to Bank Mizrahi, which, says Lahiani, forgave half the debt after Union Bank loaned him the other half. The police, though, can't figure out how, on the salary of a public official, Lahiani managed to repay half the whopping remainder in six years. (He still owes NIS 9m. to Union Bank, which incomprehensibly approved the hefty loan to a borrower classified as "insolvent.")
The mayor's brother, Avi, is suspected of having acted as a mediator who peddled licenses, contracts, tenders and perks to builders and businessmen, all for substantial fees. An intricate network of graft, money-laundering and fraud was allegedly employed to generate income.
A blatantly nepotistic sideline is also alleged. Many members of Lahiani's extended family were either directly employed by the municipality or connected to its operations. Several of his closest kin already featured in scathing reports on Lahiani's municipal administration by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, the first to call attention to the bizarre goings-on at Bat Yam's city hall.
In February 2008, Lindenstrauss took Lahiani to task for appointing his mother, merely two months after first assuming office, to head the municipal kindergarten division. Esther Lahiani's only experience was as a nonprofessional kindergarten helper. Lindenstrauss noted that no tender was issued and that, if it had been, the mayor's mother wouldn't have won the post as she lacks the qualifications and education for it.
Three months ago, Lindenstrauss turned his spotlight on Lahiani's wife, Dorit, who was paid NIS 430,000 by his independent list for having ostensibly managed its campaign. Of this, NIS 150,000 was paid as salary and NIS 280,000 more as a bonus. Lindenstrauss nixed the latter.
IT NEEDS obviously to be stressed that Lahiani is presumed innocent until - if at all - proven guilty. What can be stated with certainty, in the vein of Lindenstrauss's criticism, is that great ethical and civic irregularities are evident in the way the city has been run.
Local politics all too often constitute particularly fertile ground for malfeasance of varying degrees. The players know each other and can keep their cards close to their chests, while plenty of appointments, permits, tenders and assorted lucrative transactions are up for grabs. This indisputable fact of life gave rise to a bill submitted to the Knesset by MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima). If adopted, her legislative initiative would prohibit anyone in debt to the tune of NIS 5m. or more (personally or in a business framework) from running for mayor.
We think it a worthy idea. Anyone may seek office but it's up to society to minimize the temptation to transgress. It would doubtless be hard for a debtor to separate his own distress from the considerable financial power entrusted to him. Were this law on the books in 2003, the entire sordid Lahiani saga might have been avoided.