Benizri to appeal bribery conviction

Shas MK also convicted of breach of faith; state demands ruling of moral turpitude.

Benizri 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Benizri 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Shas MK Shlomo Benizri, who was convicted in the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday of accepting bribes, breach of faith, obstructing justice, and conspiracy to commit a crime, said he would appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision. The state announced that in sentencing the former labor and welfare minister, it would ask the district court to determine that the crimes for which he was found guilty involved moral turpitude. If the court rules as requested, Benizri will automatically be suspended from serving as an MK until the Supreme Court rules on his appeal. The bribery charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail. The breach of faith and obstruction of justice charges carry a maximum sentence of three years each. Judge Ya'acov Tsaban also convicted Benizri's religious and political mentor, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, of receiving a bribe as an intermediary and conspiracy to commit a crime. At a press conference in his party's Knesset offices on Tuesday evening, Benizri said the entire case had been blown out of proportion. "I heard the prosecution claiming that this was the biggest corruption case in the history of the country. This is the biggest lie that was ever published in the history of the country," he said. "For eight years, I have been pursued. All of this time, I was silent, preferring to offer my version of events in court." Benizri said that he respected the court's decision, but he and his legal team said repeatedly that he intended to appeal the decision. "It is important to me that this case return to its proper proportions," he said. "There are interested parties - both in the prosecution and in other places - whose only goal was to sully my name." He ruled out suggestions that he resign from the Knesset. According to the indictment, Benizri met Moshe Sela, a contractor who brought foreign workers to Israel, in 1996, and the two developed a close and complex relationship "that started off as a friendship and continued as cooperation to advance the interests of each of them. "Early in their dealings, Benizri became aware of Sela's economic potential and the material gain that could be his by deepening the relationship. Benizri understood that to gain Sela's financial help, he would have to do favors for Sela by exploiting the influence and power of the various public positions he held. "Sela became aware of Benizri's ability to use his authority and influence in the context of his public positions to help Sela advance his business interests to the extent that they depended on the activities and decisions of the authorities," the indictment read. The police investigation into Benizri's affairs began in 2001, when former Employment Service director-general Ya'acov Buchris petitioned the High Court of Justice against Benizri, then minister of labor and social affairs, charging that Benizri had fired him because he had refused to slant a public tender on behalf of Sela. In October 2003, Sela turned state's witness and testified against Benizri, leading to an indictment against him and Elbaz in 2006. In his ruling, Tsaban wrote that the state had not proven all of the charges included in the indictment. For example, he found that the state had failed to prove that Sela had paid for Benizri's rent on an apartment he owned that was adjacent to Benizri's, or that he had funded Benizri's eventual purchase of the apartment. He also ruled that Sela had not given Benizri $200,000. However, Tsaban did find Benizri guilty of accepting money from Sela to fund a lawsuit that he had filed and of paying for furniture, an air conditioning system and other items. He also ruled that Sela had paid to paint and renovate Benizri's apartment, which included knocking down the wall that separated it from the adjacent one owned by Sela and rented by Benizri. In addition, Tsaban convicted Benizri of transferring NIS 200,000 and $30,000 to Yeshivat Or Hahayim, the system of yeshivas run by Elbaz primarily for ba'alei teshuva (newly religious Jews). Regarding the charges of breach of faith, Tsaban ruled that Benizri was guilty of using his influence to obtain 200 foreign workers' permits for the Megilot Regional Council, on the shores of the Dead Sea; trying to tip in Sela's favor a tender for 4,000 agricultural workers who could be moved from one employer to another; ordering Buchris to provide information on Employment Service decisions to Sela; and appointing Sela's wife, Edna, as his bureau chief in the Health Ministry and Asher Ben-Haroush, Sela's brother-in-law, as his driver. Tsaban also found Benizri guilty of trying to arrange for Sela and David Azrieli, owner of the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv, to bring in 1,500-2,000 foreign workers directly to Azrieli's company, Kanit, instead of allocating them to the actual contractors in accordance with Employment Service regulations. When the head of the Employment Service, Moshe Dimri, refused to bend the rules, Benizri threatened that he would lose his job. Regarding the charges of obstructing justice, Tsaban found Benizri guilty of conducting a fictitious "ceremony" in front of witnesses, in which he returned to Sela the money he had received from him. As for Elbaz, Tsaban convicted him of taking money from Sela in return for persuading Benizri to act on Sela's behalf. In the indictment, Elbaz was charged with receiving four checks from Sela - one for NIS 1 million, of which he deposited NIS 200,000 - and others for NIS 180,000, NIS 190,000 and $400,000. The court convicted him of receiving checks for NIS 200,000, $30,000 and another sum of tens of thousands of dollars. Sela said he had mixed feelings about Benizri's conviction. "He was a friend, but he also betrayed me. There is pain in my heart, but I am also satisfied that the truth came out," Sela told Channel 10. He expressed outrage at the fact that during the three-year investigation, Benizri had never admitted his involvement in the affair. "Three years I sat in the investigation and I respected him. I took everything upon myself," Sela said, adding that Benizri's conduct would be acceptable even in the criminal underworld. Sela said that he had given the Shas MK between NIS 10,000 and NIS 20,000 a month in exchange for his services. Sela admitted to initiating the arrangement, saying that he had done so "out of the goodness of my heart" after seeing Benizri's poor living conditions. "As I made more money, so did he," said Sela. "But I know acted wrongly." He emphasized that he had only made the agreement because Benizri had pledged to give some of Sela's increased profits to Elbaz's yeshivas. However, Benizri didn't always keep to his word, Sela said. "On one occasion he said to me, 'Look at Elbaz, he's really come along. He is opening a yeshiva here, a yeshiva there. Let's keep the money between ourselves.'" However, Sela said he still felt compassion for Benizri, and that if he ended up in prison, he would help him out financially. Benizri was born to a secular family in Haifa and now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children. Rebecca Anna Stoil and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.