Olmert to testify for first time today in Holyland bribery trial

The verdict on his guilt or innocence could be decisive in determining whether Olmert can return to the political arena.

Ehud Olmert after verdict 370 (photo credit: Gali Tibbon/Reuters)
Ehud Olmert after verdict 370
(photo credit: Gali Tibbon/Reuters)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert will take the stand for the first time in the Holyland trial on Sunday.
His testimony could decisively affect the trial’s outcome.
The verdict on his guilt or innocence could be decisive in determining whether Olmert, who turns 68 on Monday, can return to the political arena and take one last shot at challenging Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for primacy.
The Holyland trial, in the Tel Aviv District Court, is Olmert’s second recent trial.
His first, the Jerusalem corruption trial, ended in July 2012 with his acquittal on the most serious charges. The prosecution appealed, but many expect it to lose the appeal.
In the Holyland trial, which began days before the first trial ended, Olmert is accused of accepting more than NIS 1.5 million in bribes (out of around NIS 9m. given to public officials), either directly or through aides and his brother Yossi – between 1993 and 1999 while mayor of Jerusalem – to overcome zoning and other legal barriers to the Holyland real estate project in the capital’s south.
During the early stages of the trial, Olmert and the other 15 defendants accused of taking bribes and committing fraud were confronted by a state witness, who claimed he had been the one bribing them.
Shmuel Duchner, who for around eight months of the trial was known only as S.D., accused Olmert and the other defendants of a wide range of highly specific offenses that he and the prosecution backed up with a mound of documents.
Duchner said that the project “could not have happened” without Olmert’s support, obtained through bribery, and that Olmert questioned him in detail about the real estate initiative and how he would get “reimbursed” for assisting with approvals.
The main state witness said that originally the project was only approved for building on 25,000 square meters of land, but eventually 311,000 square meters were approved for construction thanks to the bribes.
He also testified that Olmert’s bureau chief, Shula Zaken, in one instance requested emergency assistance to pay a NIS 50,000 debt, to which he responded by giving Olmert’s driver $10,000 that he had on hand having just returned from abroad. Duchner recounted instances in which he said he had given up to NIS 350,000 directly to Zaken to pay for her jewelry and furniture.
In January, the prosecution added to the strength of Duchner’s charges regarding bribes he allegedly paid to Yossi Olmert at Ehud Olmert’s request, when it called New York businessman Morris Talansky to testify that the former prime minister had similarly convinced him to pay $30,000 to Yossi in 2004.
The prosecution claimed this proved Ehud’s manner of operation in getting multiple people, not merely Duchner, to pay him bribes via helping Yossi.
Then the prosecution endured several months of cross-examination of Duchner, during which the state witness admitted that some of his allegations against some defendants were made up to strengthen the case against them. He admitted to not only to making up some of the allegations, but also to forging some of the documents.
Olmert’s lawyers proved Duchner had done a faulty photocopy job in combining unrelated documents, when they showed that a telephone number on one document did not exist in the year that the document was allegedly drafted.
The prosecution’s case suffered a further setback with the death of Duchner in March, before Olmert’s lawyers finished their cross examination.
Following his death, Olmert’s lawyers argued that all charges against him, at least those based on testimony from Duchner, should be dropped since they did not have a full and fair opportunity to cross-examine him.
Olmert may eventually win on this argument, though Judge David Rozen may decide that enough cross-examination took place or that enough other evidence exists to convict Olmert.
In April, the prosecution was openly flirting with dismissing the case, according to Deputy State Attorney Shuki Lemburger.
In May, Yossi Olmert (testifying by video-conference from the US where he has been in self-imposed exile since 2004 because of NIS 3m. he owes to gray market figures) harmed portions of Ehud’s narrative and built up the credibility of Duchner’s earlier testimony.
Yossi was questioned about whether, in 2002-2003, Duchner had given him NIS 500,000 and whether Duchner did this as a bribe for Ehud’s helping move the Holyland project forward.
He had previously told police that he had met with Duchner and been given NIS 500,000, but that Ehud knew nothing about it. Yossi told the court that he had never met Duchner or gotten money from him, but he later admitted that he had, in fact, met him and received a smaller amount of money in 1996.
The prosecution accused him of blatantly changing his story out of fear of Ehud being in the room and even Ehud’s lawyers accused Yossi of lying, as they tried to protect the former prime minister’s credibility.
The court, in an unprecedented open show of its view, told Yossi that his story worked better with Duchner’s story that he gave Yossi money as bribes for Ehud, than it did with Ehud’s story, and that it may use Yossi’s testimony to convict Ehud.
Since then, there has been little directly impacting Olmert’s case, but other big defendants such as former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski and former Jerusalem chief architect Uri Shitrit have suffered significant setbacks in the cases against them, building the prosecution’s credibility.