Judge may toss Olmert plea bargain in surprise decision over secret tapes

Olmert is already set to become the first prime minister in the country’s history to go to jail, on February 15.

Ehud Olmert (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)
Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)
Though former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday was convicted by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court of obstruction of justice in the Shula Zaken tapes saga as expected, the court threw a curveball into the works, implying it may reject the plea bargain and give him additional jail time.
In the plea bargain which Olmert agreed to on January 18, he admitted to obstruction of justice with Zaken in both the Talansky Affair and the Holyland Affair.
Olmert also agreed to a six month jail sentence and an NIS 50,000 fine, but the six months was due to run concurrent with his 18 month Holyland sentence so it would not actually add on further jail time.
But Judge Avital Chen shocked both the prosecution and Olmert's legal team, refusing to pronounce sentence in line with the deal and setting February 10 as a separate hearing day to make the decision.
It is rare that courts reject a plea bargain, the law states that the prosecution has wide discretion on such issues and most observers will likely expect that Chen will ultimately fall in line.
But Chen's repeated challenging the prosecution to defend its failure to add on more jail time for Olmert despite what he considered a slam dunk case against him, suggested that it is possible that Chen may add months on to Olmert's prior 18 month jail sentence. 
When the deal was announced, many also expected Olmert and the state prosecution to reach a deal on the Talansky, Rishon Tours and Investment Affairs, but ultimately talks broke down on those cases and the sides argued over them on January 19 before the Supreme Court.
From their arguments to the Supreme Court, it was clear that the sides split over whether any jail time Olmert agreed to in those affairs would also run concurrent with his 18 month Holyland sentence or whether time would be added on to the sentence.
The plea bargain on obstruction of justice was filed by the Central District Attorney’s Office with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court simultaneously with a new indictment for the two separate counts of obstruction of justice corresponding to the Talansky and Holyland Affairs.
In early January, Olmert's lawyer Eyal Rozovsky met with head State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan to discuss a deal which could wrap up all his many remaining legal troubles.
Discussions were being held with the aim of agreeing to a set amount of prison time he would serve for all the remaining cases, so as to save him and the prosecution time on further trials and appeals to the Supreme Court and globally reduce his prison time.
In May, the Jerusalem District Court sentenced Olmert to eight months in prison following his conviction in the Talansky Affair retrial, one of three violations he was accused of in the Jerusalem corruption trial.
The Talansky case consisted of Olmert illegally receiving, using and concealing at least $153,950 in envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky between 1993 and 2002.
Olmert is already set to become the first prime minister in the country’s history to go to jail, on February 15.
The sentence for the Talansky Affair was his second jail term following another 18 months he is due to serve for Holyland real estate case, which the Supreme Court reduced on appeal, from an initial six year sentence.
But the state has appealed other cases in which Olmert has been acquitted, such as the Rishon Tours Affair.
In the case of Rishon Tours, Olmert had been accused of double-billing organizations for reimbursements for international flights, and the state has appealed the verdict that found him innocent of these charges.
Without a plea bargain, Olmert faces potential additional jail time if the Supreme Court reverses his Rishon Tours Affair acquittal.
The Talansky Affair retrial came out of the state’s appeal of Olmert’s July 2012 acquittal in the original trial to the Supreme Court, with the Supreme Court sending the case back to the district court for a retrial in summer 2014.
In the more minor Investment Affair, Olmert was convicted of granting of favors in his capacity as a minister to his confidante Uri Messer, despite having a conflict of interest. Olmert received a sentence of six months community service, which the state has also appealed.
A Supreme Court order for a retrial of these cases came after shocking new recordings emerged last year suggesting Olmert may have been illegally plotting with his former aide of 30 years, Shula Zaken, regarding the handling of his original trial.
Zaken refused to testify in the first trial and perjured herself on Olmert’s behalf during the Holyland trial, without letting on about the existence of the recordings until these cases were being appealed, and she became embroiled in negotiating a separate deal with prosecutors.
Olmert admitted to telling Zaken not to testify in the first trial and to not cut a deal with the prosecution in the Holyland trial. He told her, “if I am not acquitted, no one will be acquitted.”
He also offered to arrange for her to be paid large sums of money, including having her legal fees covered.
Zaken listened to him and refused a plea bargain before taking the stand in the Holyland trial.
After his initial acquittal in the Talansky Affair, many thought Olmert might make a full return to politics and even the prime minister’s chair.
However, once he had a falling out with Zaken when one of his lawyers called her corrupt in a television interview, she changed her mind and accepted a deal with the state to testify against him, an event which started his downfall and led to a line of legal losses as well as revelations of her incriminating tapes of their plotting.