Mazuz announces plans to indict Olmert

Decision comes after A-G announced plans to indict Olmert; Final decision to follow hearing on matter.

olmert worried 224.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
olmert worried 224.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ehud Olmert is now much closer to standing trial on criminal charges than any Israeli prime minister has ever been, this following a decision by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to indict the premier on charges stemming from the Rishon Tours affair. The decision still depends on the outcome of a hearing between the attorney-general and Olmert and his lawyers, the Justice Ministry said on Wednesday. Mazuz also intends to charge Olmert's longtime close aide, Shula Zaken, according to the ministry's statement. The Justice Ministry statement said the hearing would be held at a time agreed upon by both sides. If the experience of former president Moshe Katsav is anything to go by, Olmert's hearing should take place in about four months. Olmert's lawyers, Eli Zohar, Nevot Tel-Tzur and Ro'i Blecher, said the prime minister vigorously denied the allegations and was shocked to see the state mention suspicions against him that he had never been questioned about during his 10 interrogation session with police investigators. The prime minister's spokesman, Amir Dan, said it had been obvious the prosecution would have to indict him "after it suffered a severe blow in the Talansky affair and forced a serving prime minister to resign." In the Rishon Tours affair, Olmert is suspected of collecting $85,000 more than the cost of speaking tours he made abroad on behalf of nonprofit organizations and working trips he made in his ministerial capacity. He allegedly double-billed or overcharged the nonprofit organizations and the state and used the money to finance private trips for himself and his family or to upgrade flights. The organizations on whose behalf Olmert spoke abroad included Akim, Israel Bonds, Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the March of Life, the Soldiers Welfare Association, Keren Hayesod, the World Jewish Congress and ORT. When he flew to speak for more than one organization on the same trip, Olmert allegedly charged each one the full price of the ticket. Sometimes, he brought other people along with him and charged the various organizations the full price of their tickets, too. Zaken and another employee in Olmert's office, Rachel Raz-Risbi, were allegedly responsible for telling each organization it would have to pay the full price of his ticket. Olmert's travel agency, Rishon Tours, would send the bills and receipts to the organizations in accordance with instructions from Zaken and Raz-Risbi. In some cases, the price that was charged to individual organizations was allegedly "significantly" higher than the cost of the actual ticket. In others, the travel agency supposedly published a fictitious itinerary for Olmert's trip. Olmert behaved the same way toward the state, according to the Justice Ministry statement. When he went on a trip that included a speaking tour and ministerial work, he would charge the nonprofit organization and the state the full price of the ticket. In doing so, he also deceived the state comptroller, to whom he had to give a report on his income, and the Tax Authority. Olmert is suspected of having obtained something by deceit, fraud and breach of faith, making false entry in the documents of a corporate body, and deceitfully concealing income. Zaken faces indictment on the first three of the above charges. The Rishon Tours affair is one of six criminal investigations being conducted against the prime minister. Ironically, it is also the most recent. It began in June as an offshoot of the Talansky affair, in which Olmert is suspected of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in cash, from an American Jewish supporter and businessman, Morris Talansky. On September 7, the police completed their investigation of the two affairs and recommended indicting the prime minister. The Talansky investigation has become bogged down because Talansky has refused to return to testify in Israel as he is currently under investigation in the US and is concerned that information he divulges in his trial here might be used against him there. The police have also completed the investigation of the Bank Leumi affair, in which Olmert is suspected of having intervened in a public tender for the sale of the core ownership of the bank to help a business acquaintance. In this case, the police have recommended closing the file. The other investigations involve Olmert's term as minister of industry, trade and labor. He is suspected of making political appointments and giving favorable treatment to businessmen seeking government grants for new factories who were represented by his close friend, Uri Messer. Another investigation involves Olmert's purchase of a home in Jerusalem's German Colony at a price below market levels. He is suspected of repaying the contractor by persuading the city to ease restrictions and grant him better building terms than he would have otherwise received. These cases are still under police investigation. MKs from Meretz, Labor, Hatikva and the Likud released statements on Wednesday night urging Olmert to suspend himself following Mazuz's declared intention to put the prime minister on trial. MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) called on Olmert to suspend himself, saying every day the prime minister stayed in office was "pointless," because he "lacks the moral and public virtues that are necessary in order to lead." MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) also called on the prime minister to resign. "This is a tragic day for the State of Israel. We've reached a new low point," Pines said in a statement. "Olmert should immediately suspend himself as he publicly and explicitly promised to do. It is wrong for a person accused by the state of criminal charges to continue sitting in the prime minister's seat," Pines added. Right-wing politicians such as MK Arye Eldad (Hatikva) were supportive of Mazuz's plan to put Olmert to trial. "The public knows that a criminal is leading Kadima's government," Eldad said, adding that he was disappointed with the slow-moving legal system. Eldad said he was "constantly amazed at Olmert's chutzpa - as he continues to give away territories to the Arabs and promises withdrawals, while his only mandate is over the attorneys who will represent him during his trial." MK Michael Eitan (Likud) expressed concern with the implications for Israel's foreign policy. "Olmert should announce he is freezing all negotiations until a new government is elected," he said. "A transitional government led by an indicted man is a government that lacks the legal and moral legitimacy required to lead a nation in diplomatic moves with far-reaching consequences," Eitan said. Another Likud MK, Yuli Edelstein, also praised Mazuz's plan to put Olmert on trial, but said it came too late. "His political verdict should have been given a long time ago, but his party members wouldn't let go of their seats and backed his corrupt actions," Edelstein said. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.