Fraud unit raids J'lem Religious Council

Suspicion of corruption and mismanagement in Jerusalem's Religious Council sparked a National Fraud Squad raid yesterday to confiscate documents and computers. These were presumed to contain details on salaries, employment amenities, council car usage and the transfer of state money to non-profit organizations. The police did not question any council workers. According to sources in the council, the investigation is focusing on the period between 1998 and 2002, when Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag, a National Religious Party member, and Yehoshua Polack, an Agudat Yisrael member, were respectively the chairman and deputy chairman of the council. One source said that the investigation was focusing on the illegal transfer of about NIS 3 million in Jerusalem Municipality funds to non-profit organizations. The money had been earmarked for charity before Pessah. Ralbag, who is currently responsible for marriage certificates in the absence of a chief rabbi of Jerusalem, denied any connection with the investigation. "They were looking for old computers and documents," said Ralbag. "They did not ask me any questions and they definitely did not investigate me." Ralbag was asked by the police to unlock his office in the Religious Council to allow for a search. Ralbag said his personal computer was not confiscated. "Perhaps they are investigating the present management," suggested Ralbag. Polack, current deputy mayor of Jerusalem and chairman of the municipality's building and construction council, also denied any wrongdoing. Like Ralbag, Polack hinted that the investigation was directed at later managements. "The police might be gathering evidence from my time to compare with what has been going on lately," said Polack. On June 26, 2004 attorney Moshe Isaac Ositcher, together with Chagai Cohen and Yehuda Gerlitz, were appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to manage the Religious Council instead of a governing body. According to sources inside the council, the three succeeded within just three months in balancing the council's budget and turning the council around after years of mismanagement. "They were the council's first professional managers," said the source. "Employees got paid and there was an atmosphere of order." Before Ositcher, Cohen and Gerlitz, three Shas members, Moshe Nimni, Yoav Ben-Tzur and Natanel Mamo, managed the council. But they were replaced after failing to show positive results. The appointed committees replaced the governing bodies of religious councils in Jerusalem and in cities all over the country. These governing bodies were disbanded after Orthodox council members refused to sit with Reform and Conservative members as dictated by a Supreme Court decision. A senior source familiar with the rabbinate and with religious services said that the present police investigation has nothing to do with another investigation being conducted into political appointments in the religious councils by Omri Sharon, then a Likud MK, and Yitzhak Kaufman, a haredi building contractor and Likud Central Committee member.