Nepotism and mismanagement in religious services apparatus

By MATTHEW WAGNER The dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the creation in its place of the National Religious Services Authority (NRSA) has failed to combat nepotism, mismanagement and chronic deficits in the religious services apparatus, according to the State Comptrollers Report. The report sharply criticized the NRSA, headed by Meir Spiegler since its establishment in January 2005, for failing to fix malfeasance. For instance, in 2004 and 2005 an external audit of 86 religious councils, which provide religious services on the local level, discovered that 224 workers received salaries without authorization and some salaries were higher than they should be. However, the authority failed to take steps to remedy this negligence, said the report. The report also criticized the NRSA for failing to have access to basic information. For instance, the authority was ordered by a labor court to pay the back salaries of thousands of religious council employees. But the authority could not accurately calculate how it owed the workers because it lacked basic payroll information. It hired an external accounting firm at a cost of millions of shekels to audit. "The authority failed to monitor the religious services apparatus," according to the report, "and lacked basic financial information." In October, 2003 the government voted to dismantle the ministry and the religious councils and gradually transfer responsibility for religious services to local government authorities. In January 2004, the first stage of the reform, responsibility for religious services was transferred to the Prime Minister's Office. In the January 2005, the NRSA was created within the Prime Minister's Office. The rationale behind the dismantling, which was supported by a wide consensus of both secular and religious, was to streamline the religious services apparatus. But it was also designed to fight the phenomenon of nepotism. The Religious Affairs Ministry had traditionally been used by the political party that controlled it to provide jobs for its constituents. However, despite the structural changes, the phenomenon of nepotism continued under the Likud-led government of Ariel Sharon. Sharon's son Omri, who took control of religious services in the Prime Minister's Office began hiring Likud members. The report found that 20 of the 52 appointees made by the younger Sharon were members of the Likud. MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) is presently responsible for religious affairs in the PM's Office. Meanwhile, the authority has failed to implement the government decision to gradually transfer responsibility for religious services to the local authorities.