Law & Order: Just when you thought it was over

Moshe Katsav made unexpected return to headlines this week with news that he hired PIs to approach people linked to witnesses in his trial.

Katsav after sentencing_311(r) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Katsav after sentencing_311(r)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most Israelis wanted to put the upsetting episode of disgraced former president Moshe Katsav behind them. The nation cringed in December 2010 when the Tel Aviv District Court convicted Katsav of rape, sexual harassment, forcefully committing an indecent act, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice.
Some asked how the system had allowed such a man to reach the office of president when the offenses had gone on for years, while others took pride in the legal system’s having proven that no man was above the law. Still others were simply glad the affair had finally ended.
Or so they thought.
However, this week, police charged that in the months following his conviction, Katsav and his relatives and associates had not rested. Determined to fight on and prove the former president’s innocence, they hired two private detectives (police say they were hired by either Katsav or his brother, Lior), and tasked them with an ambitious goal: to go undercover, approach individuals connected to trial witnesses, and find enough evidence to undermine their testimonies.
Katsav allegedly hoped that any new evidence uncovered would be accepted by the Supreme Court as part of his future appeal, and be compelling enough to impact public opinion – an arena that has proven utterly catastrophic for the ex-president from the moment the suspicions against him surfaced.
“He’s fighting for his life,” a law enforcement official told The Jerusalem Post this week.
According to an undercover investigation by the National Fraud Unit, which had been going on since May, one of the private investigators – working without the required Justice Ministry-issued license – pretended to be a documentary filmmaker and approached individuals connected with a trial witness, saying he wanted to make a film about “people who have changed the world.” The PIs secretly recorded all of their communications, hoping to pick up any details that would show that Katsav did not rape the former Tourism Ministry employee known as “Aleph.”
But the individuals who were approached became suspicious, police said.
“Their behavior left behind clues,” added the law enforcement source. Before long, the PIs were themselves being recorded and secretly monitored by undercover detectives from the National Fraud Unit. Then, on July 6, the two were arrested.
Katsav was once again questioned by police, as were his brother and his son, Yoram. The suspicions are that the PIs harassed witnesses and violated their privacy.
SO DID Katsav’s attempt to redeem his name violate the law? Officially police maintain that it did, but privately, even some law enforcement officials concede that the legal line is not that clear-cut.
According to Clause 249 of the criminal law book, anyone found “harassing a person regarding testimony he gave, or is about to give, in a legal investigation is guilty of an offense punishable by [up to] three years in prison.”
The law appears to be clear: Even if someone has already testified, they may not be “harassed.” But what constitutes harassment? And what happens if the individuals approached are associates of witnesses, rather than the witnesses themselves? “Harassing a witness would be to offer them money not to testify. That disrupts an investigation. But here, Katsav is heading to a Supreme Court appeal and would like to present new evidence,” said Moshe Ben- David, CEO of the Karmiel-based Ben-David Hakirot PI offices, and a member of the Israel Bureau of Private Investigators.
Had the PI in question been working with a license, there would have been nothing illegal about his pretending to be a film director when he approached individuals to gather information, Ben-David said.
He added that the law was clear about whom private investigators were allowed to impersonate. PIs cannot claim they are licensed professionals, such as lawyers, police officers or accountants, he said, noting, “You don’t need a license to make films, so a licensed PI can claim he is a director.”
Ben-David declared working without a license – as one of the PIs is suspected of having done – to be an indefensible act.
“It makes the rest of us look bad.,” he stated. “In Israel, there are 400 legal PIs and 6,200 unlicensed PIs.”
Irrespective of the license issue, he continued, the police and private investigators suffer from a complete lack of trust in one another because, he argued, police feel threatened by the capabilities of PIs, many of whom are former police officers themselves.
A year ago, Ben-David was hired by a client to investigate a young woman’s allegations of rape at the hands of her former partner. He said he’d recorded the woman saying that the man she was accusing had two options, “either marry her or nothing.” Ben-David was arrested by police and accused of harassing a witness.
“They never used my evidence,” he said.
“Police are in a panic when private investigators enter the scene and discover new evidence,” he went on. “But if the witnesses already testified, this is not harassment.”
Ben-David, who is licensed to work abroad as a PI, said the relationship between police and PIs in other countries, such as the US, Holland and Australia, was far more cooperative than in Israel.
He added that the laws regulating the work of PIs dated back to 1977 and were unclear, and that requests sent to the Justice Ministry to formulate a new set of laws had not been answered.
State prosecutors have been accompanying this latest investigation from the start, indicating that they believe criminal offenses were committed. Should they decide to charge the private investigators, as well as Katsav and his relatives, the former president will once again find himself in the dock, fighting yet another battle.