Police: Olmert double-billed donors

Key witness "pained by the lies that appear in the media on a daily basis," asserts PM is not a thief.

olmert 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced a host of grave new allegations on Friday when police and the Justice Ministry said they suspect him of billing multiple donors and organizations for the same overseas trips over several years, and using the excess - tens of thousands of dollars - to pay for personal flights abroad for himself and family members. One source told The Jerusalem Post that Olmert had amassed around $78,000 in his private account from the money he secured to cover his legitimate travel expenses. A joint statement released by the police and state prosecutors on Friday said that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz gave police the green light four weeks ago to widen the Talansky affair criminal investigation against Olmert, after evidence came to light of offenses related to Olmert's travels. The investigation was originally opened to probe the cash-filled envelopes the prime minister is alleged to have received from New York businessman Morris Talansky. The new suspicions center on Olmert's tenure as Jerusalem mayor (1993-2003) and as minister of industry, trade and labor (2003-2005), during which time police say he sought donations to cover the same work-related flights from several organizations simultaneously - including Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Soldiers Welfare Association and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. After securing the requested funds, the Rishon Tours travel agency - used by Olmert to manage the funds and flights - sent receipts to each donating party, giving them the impression they had paid for all of Olmert's legitimate costs, when in fact only a small portion of the money was used to cover the travel expenses, police said. The rest of the money was "transferred to a special private account in Olmert's name managed by the travel agency. Those funds were used to pay for private overseas trips made by Mr. Olmert and his family members," police said. Olmert was confronted with the new allegations by National Fraud Unit detectives who questioned him at his Jerusalem residence on Friday, police said, adding that they had not released the new details to avoid giving the prime minister a chance to prepare answers in advance. Amir Dan, a spokesman for the prime minister, said police were trying to create a diversion after realizing that the Talansky testimony was worthless, adding that the new suspicions were based on "old material that police received three months ago." Dan added that Olmert's travel affairs had been managed in an "organized and transparent manner. It's not clear why police felt it was so urgent [to release the allegations] other than as an attempt to distract the public's attention away from Talansky's testimony." Friday's questioning session was marked by a "business-like and appropriate atmosphere," Dan said, adding that "the ground did not shake and the sky did not fall" when police presented their new suspicions to the prime minister. "All of these questions were based on detailed notes made in Mr. Ehud Olmert's bureau during his various roles and which were fully passed on to the Israel Police three months ago," Dan said. "The questions the prime minister faced [on Friday] could have been asked of each Knesset member, minister or mayor in the State of Israel who was invited by organizations around the world and was financed by them," he added. A key witness in the widened police investigation is Rachel Rizby-Raz, who worked as Olmert's travel coordinator during his tenure as industry, trade and labor minister, and who now serves as his adviser on Diaspora issues. In a statement released on Saturday night, Rizby-Raz said she was "pained by the lies that appear in the media on a daily basis." Olmert, she said, "didn't take a shekel for himself and didn't use the public's money for his family's needs." She said that the prime minister, whom she valued and respected, was a "wonderful, warm, caring and humane person with amazing abilities" who has devoted the past 35 years "to further the interests of the state." Rizby-Raz said that she had cooperated fully with police investigators. "I am not suspected of any offense and I did not break any law," she said. "Regretfully, unlike other sources who leak ceaselessly, I cannot give details on the investigation, protect the prime minister and my good name or tell the truth, for fear that I would be accused of disrupting the investigation. "I am saddened by the fact that in my country, what a person says in the interrogation room appears in the newspapers the next day, and no one thinks that's wrong," she said. "I am saddened by the fact that in my country you can butcher a man in the town square without trial or [giving him] the presumption of innocence - and everyone leans back to enjoy the show." Speaking on Channel 2 Saturday evening, Navot Tel Tsur, a lawyer representing Olmert, said police had a "clear agenda to topple the prime minister before reaching the stage of an indictment." Tel Tsur said police had crossed the line on Friday by releasing the new details, adding that the National Fraud Unit was afraid that Talansky would be robbed of all credibility during his cross-examination on Thursday. "The reports accompanying the investigation have the markings of a vendetta, of an attempt to overthrow the prime minister without a trial. I would be very surprised if the public would be prepared to accept that," Tel Tsur said. Police said the investigation was at an advanced stage and would soon be completed. JPost.com Staff contributed to this report