Olmert's trial to resume on February 22

Olmert trial set to open

The first criminal trial of a current or past Israeli prime minister kicked off Friday morning in the Jerusalem District Court. Charges against former premier Ehud Olmert include fraudulent receipt of goods, false registration of corporate documents, fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion in the so-called Rishon Tours scandal, the "Talansky cash envelopes" affair, and the "investment center" case. Friday's preliminary court session was mostly procedural, and dealt with the defense team's request to postpone the next stage of the trial until April. The judge decided to compromise, ruling that the trial would resume on February 22 and take place three times a week - Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Following the court session, Eli Zohar, one of Olmert's lawyers denied that the defense team's request amounted to "foot-dragging." "We need the time so that we can obtain the same case material as the prosecution," he told reporters, adding that some of the material still needed to be sent from the US. "It's not foot-dragging, we just want the trial to be conducted in the normal way." Zohar appeared satisfied with the court's decision, saying, "We asked for the trial to begin in April, and the court compromised." Likewise, another of Olmert's lawyers, Navot Tel-Tzur, said the time was needed to get all the case material since "they need to enable a fair trial…it's in the public's interest." He added that the indictment included a staggering 280 witnesses. In November, the court will hold two hearings in which the case material will be presented, and a month later, on December 21, Olmert will be asked to respond to the indictment. Shula Zaken, Olmert's former bureau chief, was also on trial Friday for her alleged roles in the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs. On her way out of court, Zaken merely gave reporters the Yom Kippur greeting of gmar hatima tova, and said, "It's going to be okay." On his way into court, Olmert told reporters that he had been subject to "an almost inhumane three years of slander and interrogations," and that he had "paid a heavy price" for the allegations, referring to his resignation as prime minister. "But the time has come for the facts, and the facts only," he said. "I have arrived here as a completely innocent man, and I believe I'll leave here a completely innocent man." Also making his way into the courthouse was Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel. "This case has finally got to court after a-year-and-a-half," he told reporters. "This is the best place in which the facts and legal claims can be cleared up. This is the place to conduct a comprehensive, professional hearing. The verdict will be given here and I really hope the trial will be a professional one." Asked about the absence of State Attorney Moshe Lador, Abarbanel said he could not attend the trial due to "personal reasons." In an interview on the BBC's Hard Talk program on Thursday, Olmert said he had full confidence that he would be proven innocent. "I am innocent," he said. "I look at some of my colleagues, my former colleagues in different Western countries in Europe. They were charged with similar accusations and in the end, nothing happened. And I am absolutely certain that this will be the outcome of this particular case." When asked whether he had wrestled with the prospect of ending up in prison, he said: "Ah, I laugh," and added that in his mind there was absolutely no possibility that could happen. The indictment covers four separate investigations - the Rishon Tours affair; Olmert's relations with his close friend, attorney Uri Messer, and US financial backer Moshe Talansky; his alleged deceptions of the State Comptroller's Office; and Zaken's alleged wiretapping of Olmert's conversations. In the Rishon Tours affair, Olmert is charged with obtaining something by deceit under aggravated circumstances, false entry into the documents of a corporate body, fraud and breach of faith, and concealing income by deceit. Zaken is charged with obtaining something by deceit under aggravated circumstances, false entry into the documents of a corporate body, and fraud and breach of faith. According to the charge sheet, Olmert and Zaken 'exploited Olmert's status and the high public offices he held to conduct systematic and prolonged activity to obtain financial benefits for Olmert in various ways and from various sources, including by deceiving organizations, public institutions, the state and government officials.' In addition to defrauding the state, Olmert, Zaken and another Olmert aide, Rachel Raz-Risbi, allegedly cheated philanthropic and public organizations, including Akim - The Association for the Rehabilitation of the Mentally Handicapped, Israel Bonds, Yad Vashem, the Wiesenthal Center, the March of Life, the World Jewish Congress and others. Raz-Risbi has been charged separately in the Rishon Tours affair. The indictment includes a 10-page index detailing 17 trips Olmert took between the years 2002 and 2005 in which he charged the state and donors more than the flight tickets cost. The indictment states that Olmert also double-billed for hotel and transfer costs, but these are not included in the charges. It claims that the 17 trips Olmert allegedly made on behalf of more than one organization were sometimes made with his wife and other times with security guards, in which Raz-Risbi, at his orders, supposedly charged the organizations more than what the trip actually cost. Altogether, Olmert over-charged the state and these organizations by $92,000, according to the charge sheet. The money was allegedly kept in a secret account by the Rishon Tours tourist agency and members of Olmert's family used it for their private trips. The family trips added up to $100,000. Instead of Olmert making up the difference from his own pocket, Rishon Tours allegedly siphoned off the money from other clients without their knowledge. In some cases, Olmert made up a false travel itinerary to charge more money, according to the prosecution. Olmert also deceived the Finance Ministry by using Rishon Tours, even though it was not on the list of authorized travel agencies that could be used by government officials. He allegedly arranged with two travel agencies that were on the list to serve as 'front men,' while the actual purchases were carried out, illegally, by Rishon Tours. Regarding the Talansky and Messer affairs, Olmert is charged with fraud and breach of faith and receiving something by deceit in aggravated circumstances. Zaken is charged with one count of fraud and breach of faith for her role in these affairs and in the Rishon Tours case. According to the indictment, Olmert received $600,000 from Talansky between 1997 and 2005 and did not report this income. The sum included a transfer of NIS 104,500 from Talansky to Olmert's private bank account in June 1997, $300,000 to cover Olmert's debts from his election campaign for mayor of Jerusalem in 1998, gifts of $110,000 and €25,000 in 1999 and $30,000 in campaign donations. In addition, the state charged that Talansky gave Olmert $100,000 in cash delivered by Talansky in envelopes to Olmert or Zaken in Israel or to Olmert in the US. In return, Olmert allegedly intervened on Talansky's behalf to arrange appointments for him with businessmen, including with Sheldon Adelson and Yitzhak Teshuva. According to the indictment, Uri Messer kept a secret cash fund for Olmert which amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the money came from Talansky. Others, unknown to the state, also gave Olmert money. Zaken transferred the funds to Messer and kept tabs on the deposits. From time to time, Olmert would ask for some of the money. At one point, the fund amounted to $350,000. At first it was kept in a safe in Messer's office. Later it was transferred to a bank. For this and other reasons, Olmert and Messer were involved in a relationship in which Olmert was indebted to Messer for his help. Thus, the indictment maintained, Olmert should have kept a distance from Messer in his capacity as a minister. But, according to the charge sheet, he did not do so. While serving as industry and commerce minister, Olmert had overall responsibility for the Investment Center, established to encourage investments in Israel. In that capacity, he actively intervened in the requests of businessmen represented by Messer for government grants. Two of the cases in which he granted the requests of Messer's clients, against the opinion of the professionals in the ministry, involved Silicat Dimona Inc. and Shemen Industries Ltd. Olmert has also been charged with receiving something by deceit in aggravated circumstances, for providing false information and concealing facts from the State Comptroller's Office, while Zaken was charged with illegal wiretapping and fraud and breach of faith for allegedly eavesdropping on Olmert's phone conversations. Dan Izenberg contributed to this report