Former finance minister expresses 'shame' at trial, but claims embezzled funds were owed for his pension.
By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
As a veteran politician, former finance minister Avraham Hirchson is no stranger to pressure the week before elections.
On Tuesday, though, the pressure was not from political challenges, but from Judge Bracha Ofir-Tom, as Hirchson defended himself against allegations that he embezzled NIS 2.5 million from the National Workers Organization (NWO) and its subsidiary, Nili.
Hirchson's trial opened Tuesday in Tel Aviv District Court with the former Kadima minister speaking in his own defense. He told Ofir-Tom that he was "ashamed and embarrassed" by his actions, but that he hoped to prove that he "deserved every shekel" he took.
"This position, to go from the role of finance minister to [the accused on the stand], is very difficult for me," he said.
"Since the beginning of the affair, not one night has gone by in which I can say I've been able to sleep. I am suffering every night, and every minute, and I cannot stop asking myself why I took the money in cash."
Hirchson said he was owed the money as part of his retirement package for his position as chairman of the NWO.
But Ofir-Tom had little patience for Hirchson's claims that he had received the cash - allegedly between NIS 15,000 and NIS 25,000 per month over the course of six years - as advances on his pension.
"Every organization needs to keep its books," Ofir-Tom responded to Hirchson's explanation. "What was this - the corner grocery run by someone's mother where you and the comptroller took money however you wanted?"
In 1996, the Knesset passed a law stating that parliamentarians could not receive additional salaries beyond the ones provided by the state. At that point, the former finance minister said, all wages from the union stopped, even though he continued to serve as its chairman until 2005.
Therefore, he argued, the money he was accused of taking was in fact the money he deserved as part of his pension from that position.
"I will try to explain that I deserved every agora," Hirchson said in his opening statement. "But the way [in which I received it was wrong], I can't explain it. Blindness? Apathy?
"I am ashamed and embarrassed at the way in which I received the money. I don't know how to explain it, and I can't forgive myself."
Police accused Hirchson of embezzling the money from Nili - an organization that operated educational institutions under the umbrella of the NWO - and other nonprofit organizations affiliated with the union.
He was also accused of receiving funds for "padded" travel expenses, as well as hundreds of thousands of shekels for his Likud primary campaigns in 1998 and 2000.
During under police questioning, Hirchson initially denied receiving the money at all. When detectives pressed him, showing him bank statements proving that the money had come into his possession, Hirchson then claimed that it had been given to him by a relative in Italy and passed on to him by his son.
Tuesday's admission that he had received the money in envelopes - but merely as part of funds owed him - was the third version offered by the former finance minister.
NWO representatives said that on Monday, they had received an envelope from Hirchson containing 24 checks, apparently covering at least part of the sum that was allegedly embezzled from organization coffers.
But union officials expressed their dismay Tuesday that together with the checks, Hirchson had included a letter that they said hinted that the organization still owed him money.
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