Mazuz: Justice Ministry bill will clarify conflict of interest

Attorney-General says bill meant to make it easier to determine when a conflict of interest constitutes a criminal act.

mazuz 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
mazuz 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Justice Ministry is preparing a bill meant to make it easier to determine when a conflict of interest constitutes a criminal act, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz said Tuesday. Mazuz was speaking at a special Knesset meeting marking the International Day of Struggle against Corruption, run by State Control Committee Chairman Michael Eitan (Likud). Mazuz said that a special task force had studied the matter and the ministry was now ready to draft legislation to clear up the vagueness of the current law. Conflict of interest was at the heart of the probe into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's conduct in the tender for the sale of the government's controlling share in Bank Leumi. Last week, State Attorney Moshe Lador closed the case for lack of sufficient evidence. Olmert was suspected of intervening to tip the terms of the tender in favor of a friend, Australian billionaire Frank Lowy. He was also suspected of meeting privately twice with a family friend, attorney Tamar Ben-David, who was a consultant for the law firm that represented Lowy. Furthermore, the retired head of the law firm was the father of Olmert's daughter-in-law. Lador wrote, "Even though the fact that three people had personal connections with Olmert and this increases, to some extent, the force of the conflict of interest in which the prime minister was involved, it does not seem that it is enough to create the 'aggravating aspect' that turns a conflict of interest into a criminal act. "In other words, even though we are confronted with an aggregate of conflicts of interest - each of which does not create criminal responsibility by itself - the aggregate weight is also insufficient to establish the critical mass of conflict of interest to the degree of gravity that is sufficient, by itself, to constitute injury to the public that reaches the level of a criminal act." Hebrew University criminal law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer took issue with Lador's decision. "The attorney-general is absolutely right when he says that in the criminal arena, the crime of conflict of interests is the second most important tool in the fight against corruption, after the crime of accepting bribes. It needs reformulation. As the crime is currently worded, it harms the fight. "Whoever needed proof of this ought to read the opinion of the state attorney in connection with Olmert and Bank Leumi and he will see how hard it is to work with this law." Kremnitzer quoted Lador as saying that Olmert's action did not harm the values of ethical conduct, public confidence in government or proper government behavior in a "substantial" way. "What does "substantial" mean"? Kremnitzer asked. "Lador writes that Olmert caused harm to public confidence in the government and that he deviated from the straight and narrow path. In my opinion, that is very substantial." Kremnitzer added that there were worrisome signs that the struggle against corruption could be lost. For example, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's plan to split the powers of the attorney-general was meant to weaken the office. The campaign against wiretapping could also be detrimental. "Wiretapping is a crucial tool in the fight against government corruption," he said. Kremnitzer added that the state did not apply the law equally to all sectors of society. The attorney-general's decision to close the file against prime minister Ariel Sharon in the Greek island affair was proof of that, he said. "This is critical," Kremnitzer said. "If the police investigate but the state prosecution does not apply the principle of one law for all, then we haven't achieved anything." He also warned that the pile-up of cases in the courts hurt the struggle against corruption because trials took too long. Sometimes these tie-ups were deliberate, he added, without elaborating. Above all, said Kremnitzer, the public must demand a higher standard of conduct on the part of its leaders than criminal law can impose. It is not enough that a candidate for public office is an honest person. But if he is not honest, the public should not vote for him regardless of whatever other qualities he may possess. Politicians want to get elected, he said. If they must be honest to win votes, they will be.