Legal Affairs: Raunchier than reality TV?

Sex. Violence. Bribery. The stuff of high ratings makes for low morale when it oozes from officialdom.

Marciano 88 (photo credit: )
Marciano 88
(photo credit: )
Three new names were added this week to the ever-growing pantheon of elected officials who are in trouble with the law. One of them was Labor MK Yoram Marciano, who is suspected of assaulting and threatening nightclub security guards. The second is Lior Katsav, brother of President Moshe Katsav and former mayor of Kiryat Malachi. Katsav was questioned under caution after a 27-year-old migrant worker complained that he had committed indecent acts against her when she worked at Pundak 101 on the Arava highway. A lie detector test indicated that she had spoken the truth. The third, and by far the most serious affair in terms of alleged corruption of a public figure, involves Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. He is suspected of taking a cut of hundreds of thousands of shekels from his close associate, Ovadia Cohen, who allegedly embezzled as much as NIS 10 million from an organization that operated educational institutions under the umbrella of the National Labor Federation in Eretz Yisrael, which Hirchson headed. Police questioned the finance minister for seven hours on suspicion that he was guilty of receiving something under aggravated circumstances, fraud and breach of faith, theft by a director and signing false accounting statements. These latest suspects joined an already long list of elected officials who are either on trial, under police investigation or under a cloud of suspicion of improper conduct. Those on trial include Shlomo Benizri, former minister of labor and social affairs; Tzahi Hanegbi, former minister of justice, the environment and internal security; and Haim Ramon, former minister of justice and the interior. Ramon has already been convicted and is awaiting sentence. President Moshe Katsav's investigation on a long list of sexual misconduct and other charges has been completed together with a police recommendation to indict him. Katsav is due to have a hearing before Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz on May 2, before Mazuz decides whether or not to press charges. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under police investigation on suspicion that he interfered in a public tender for control of Bank Leumi on behalf of business friend Frank Lowy. Meanwhile, Mazuz is deliberating whether to order police to investigate several other affairs, including the purchase of a home by Olmert in Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood, alleged political appointments in the Small Businesses Authority and fraud and breach of faith regarding his treatment of former law partner Ori Messer. Other elected officials under police investigation include Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu), Yisrael Katz (Likud) and Ruhama Avraham (Kadima). Four Arab MKs, Ahmed Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al) and Azmi Bishara, Wasil Taha and Jamal Zahalka (National Democratic Assembly) are under police investigation for having visited Lebanon and Syria in 2005 and 2006. Finally, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss found that Minister for Negev and Galilee Affairs Shimon Peres (Kadima) broke party funding laws in his race for the Labor Party leadership and demanded that he return the money, but did not refer the matter to Mazuz for criminal investigation. In addition to these members of the 17th Knesset, there is a substantial list of elected officials from the previous Knesset who have been indicted, are on trial or under police investigation. That list is headed by former prime minister Ariel Sharon. IT SEEMS fair to say that never before has the general public been so demoralized. Today's climate has been created not only by the peccadilloes of too many of those who presume to be our leaders, but also because of the failures of policy-making and proper administration. Three recent and telling examples of this are the state's conduct of the second Lebanese war, the bungling and worse revealed by the Zeiler Committee investigation into the Perinian brothers' affair and the failure of local councils to pay their workers for long stretches of time. The combination of disregard for the law and incompetence has been lethal for public morale. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to keep in mind that the indictments and investigations of illegal activity on the part of our elected officials not only involve a minority of them (albeit many of them senior ones), but that the alleged or proven misconduct is not of one stripe. In fact, we are talking about four different types of allegations. The first involves personal corruption, where elected officials allegedly used their power to line their own pockets. So far, four politicians are accused or suspected of doing so - Olmert (in the German Colony house affair), Hirchson in the National Labor Federation in Eretz Yisrael affair, Benizri (in the migrant labor quotas affair) and Lieberman (alleged illegal business ties in Russia). In this context, Avraham is under investigation for accepting two free flights to Europe and the US paid for by Agrexco. The second category involves allegations of political corruption, where politicians used their power to provide jobs and favors for those who could repay them with political or financial support. Politicians accused of such crimes include Olmert (the Bank Leumi tender, the Small Businesses Authority), Peres (illegal campaign donations) and Katz (political appointments in Ministry of Agriculture subsidiary bodies). The third category has to do with sexual crimes and includes Ramon, Moshe Katsav and Lior Katsav. Perhaps Marciano, who is accused of violence (not against women) belongs to a sub-category of the above. The fourth has to do with allegations of "ideological" crimes and includes the four Arab MKs. Classifying crimes or alleged crimes does not necessarily diminish from the seriousness of each type. On the other hand, it provides a degree of perspective and insight into what may appear to be one uniform disaster. Furthermore, whatever one may think of the first three types of crimes, the fourth belongs to a different category altogether. The Arab MKs may indeed be found to have broken the law, but it cannot be said that by doing so they violated the trust of their constituency. On the other hand, whatever the differences in typology between the first three, there is one factor that unites them all - the arrogance of power. Those who committed the crimes for which they are accused or suspected did so because they could - because they felt, perhaps without consciously thinking about it, that their positions gave them special license. One would think that after so many scandals had already been uncovered, those politicians who turn out to be guilty of the crimes they are accused or suspected of committing would have realized that their actions were a betrayal of public trust or, perhaps more to the point, that they might not get away with them. But just like reckless drivers do not learn from the statistics and the graphic pictures of traffic accidents, so, apparently are some politicians convinced that "it won't happen to me."