Yisrael Beytenu deputy minister among 30 nabbed in massive corruption probe

Yisrael Beytenu says that the investigation is an attempt to harm the party given that it comes at the height of an election campaign.

Faina Kirschenbaum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Faina Kirschenbaum
Police arrested and detained for questioning dozens of public officials on Wednesday, including Yisrael Beytenu’s Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum, on suspicion of being part of a huge network of bribery, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust.
Police said the case includes as many as 15 smaller corruption investigations, all of which include the pilfering of public funds through falsified documents, false government tenders and the funneling of millions of shekels through a series of nongovernmental organizations, in most of which Kirschenbaum allegedly played a central or leading role.
On Wednesday evening, after several hours of questioning by police detectives, Kirschenbaum was released from custody. She has not been placed under arrest, because of her parliamentary immunity.
Those arrested included Stas Meseznikov of Yisrael Beytenu, who is suspected of accepting bribes from local authority heads in exchange for making budgetary decisions favorable to them while he was tourism minister in 2009-2013.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, a member of Yisrael Beytenu, was not updated on the case over the past year, police said.
Many of the suspects are also closely tied to Yisrael Beytenu, including David “Dawood” Godovsky, the head of the party’s central committee, who is considered one of the central suspects along with Kirschenbaum.
Also arrested on Monday was Amnon Lieberman, spokesman for the party’s Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir.
The case includes allegations that a series of public officials accepted or paid bribes in exchange for political favors. These include bribes given in exchange for budgetary decisions made by the government or for appointing cronies to jobs under false pretenses and diverting funds to projects close to those who stand accused in the case.
One such allegation is against Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika; his attorney said his client is being held by police on suspicion of being part of the alleged transferring of funds to the Company for the Development of Samaria, in exchange for political favors he helped provide.
The arrest warrant said that in one of the cases, Mesika and Haim Ben-Shoshan “are suspected of theft by a public official, fraud and falsifying documents, worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, as part of their roles working for the Company for the Development of Samaria. Also, they and suspect Efi Peles are suspected of giving bribes to Kirschenbaum and others on a number of occasions and of brokering bribes.”
Mesika was ordered kept in custody until December 30.
A police official said he could not think of another corruption case involving public officials that was this broad in scope and involved so many people mutually covering for one another and conspiring together.
While police do not know how much money the case involves, they believe it could very well be “very many millions,” he said. NGOs were used to funnel and launder the money, a “classic way to move money like this,” he added.
Those brought in for questioning also include a cadre of regional council heads, former cabinet ministers, and heads of public corporations, union leaders and political activists.
Suspects include well-known lobbyist Yisrael Yehoshua; Mordechai Dehman, the head of the Megilot Regional Council; Dov Litvinoff, the head of the Tamar Regional Council; Alex Viznitzer, the chairman of NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd.; Avner Kopel, the former head of the Israel Basketball Super League; Doron Simchi, the head of the Israel Handball Association; and an official from the National Anti-Drug Authority.
Lahav 433, the elite antifraud police unit, has been investigating the case undercover for the past year and went public with the investigations on Wednesday, when the suspects were detained.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party responded to the allegations, saying that it was an attempt to hurt the party.
“As has happened in every election campaign since Yisrael Beytenu was established in 1999, the police are not giving up on high-profile arrests and investigations against members of our party,” the party.
The timing of the investigation was suspect, given that it comes at the height of an election campaign, Yisrael Beytenu said.
“This shows, more than anything, what the intentions of this investigation are – to harm Yisrael Beytenu,” it said, adding that the claims were baseless and this would be proven, once the media storm dies down.
Israel Police Insp.- Gen. Yohanan Danino on Wednesday afternoon denied these allegations, saying that the investigation was under way for around a year and that the decision to go public was made due to the amount of evidence that was collected.
On Tuesday, police sent out a statement to reporters due to rumors of a major investigation and a raid within Interior Ministry offices. In their statement, police reminded reporters of a sweeping gag order on the case and a second gag order preventing reporting on the gag. By Wednesday morning, the case had broken throughout the press.
The investigation started as a series of small and seemingly unrelated cases, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Over time, enough pieces of the puzzle put together for the broader picture to become clear, at which point Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein took over the reins of many aspects of the case, including approving investigations and searches regarding Knesset members and deputy ministers.
Another complex aspect of the investigation was tracking activity through detailed coalition agreements, budgets and contributions.
Regarding the timing of revealing the investigation, the Post has learned that the consensus in the Justice Ministry is that it is unlikely that there was an attempt to publicize the investigation, but, rather, that extensive efforts were made to keep the probe confidential, and then those attempts ceased.
In that regard, the belief in the Justice Ministry appears to be that the authorities are merely proceeding with the investigation to its next natural stages, as opposed to artificially slowing it because of the early general election.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.