Zeiler commision sends warning letters to police top brass

The Zeiler Commission generated what one senior police officer described as "an earthquake shaking the police" as it distributed letters of warning on Tuesday to senior officials. The commission accused the police, the District Attorney's Office, and the Justice Ministry's Police Investigative Department of serious failures in their handling of issues surrounding the investigations into the murders of underworld figures Tzahi Ben-Or and Pinhas Buhbout. Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi, former police commissioner Insp.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Aharonsihki, Franco, PID head Herzl Shviro, former Southern District commander and current Yisrael Beiteinu MK Yitzhak Aharonovich, as well as Southern District attorney Iska Leibowitz all received letters warning them that the commission's conclusions were likely to be damaging to them. Such warnings are distributed before the conclusion of hearings in order to allow the letters' recipients to meet with legal teams, submit additional paperwork or request an additional opportunity to testify before the commission reaches its final conclusions. The warning letters set a flurry of meetings into action throughout Tuesday afternoon and evening as speculation abounded about whether Karadi would step down in light of the warning. While the police commander was not accused of any criminal offense, the committee's interim findings concluded that Karadi had not acted appropriately as the Southern District commander. The committee cited his poor judgment in dealing with the Buhout and Ben-Or murder cases, Levy's alleged ties with the Perinian kingpins, and his appointment of Levy to serve as the head of the Southern District's elite Central Investigative Unit. Attorney Eliad Shraga from the Movement for Quality Government used the opportunity to lash out at former internal security Tzahi Hanegbi. He said that when such a man who, as Shraga said, has been frequently in and out of corruption investigations, is appointed as the minister in charge of police, then one should not be surprised at the state of the police. Shraga spoke out on Army Radio against Hanegbi's appointment, when the people he nominated were the same ones who would investigate him on corruption charges. The committee, led by former district court justice Vardi Zeiler, is charged with reviewing the way police and prosecutors led a six-year investigation which began following the 1999 murder of underworld figure Pinhas Buhbout. Police believe that southern crime bosses Oded and Sharon Perinian hired former policeman Tzahi Ben-Or to murder Buhbout while the latter was recuperating from a previous attempt on his life. Ben-Or later entered into negotiations to serve as a state's witness against the Perinians, but later fled the country and was murdered in Mexico in 2004. Police Asst.-Cmdr. Yoram Levy and Ch.-Insp. Reuven Gilboa received particularly harsh treatment in the commission's interim findings. They were cited by the commission as having "problematic relationships" with the Perinian family, who, in turn, the interim report said, maintained ties with other organized crime syndicates throughout the country. The report cited nighttime meetings with the criminals held at the officers' houses, direct contact between the Perinians and the officers, the closing of criminal cases against the Perninian brothers, and even what the report described as "telephone contacts at the time of the attempted murder of Ben-Or and in connection to police raids on the Perinians' casino." As head of the CIU, one of Levy's main tasks was to lead investigations into organized crime in the district, including investigations involving the Perinian family. With the release of the letters and the interim findings, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter held a discussion with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, remarking afterwards that he would respond as mandated by the law. Dichter then met with Karadi, but neither would say what was discussed in the meeting, other than offering a general statement that Dichter did not intend to remove Karadi from his position at this stage of the investigation. The embattled police chief, who now holds the dubious distinction of being the first Israel Police commissioner to serve while under official warning, held a nighttime meeting with his general staff on Tuesday during which he updated them with regard to the letter that he received from the Zeiler Commission. "During this time you must continue to be strong and to lead the police," Karadi told the senior officers. Karadi emphasized that the criticism leveled against him and against the police had generated "a complex period for the organization in which a number of officers - and the organization as a whole - exists in the shadow of the commission's inquiry. Together with that, it is my duty and your duty as the senior staff, to continue to deal with topics that are at the forefront of the national agenda, and the challenges that stand before us." Following the release of the commission's interim findings, Karadi instructed the police to establish a special team under the leadership of Deputy Police Commissioner Cmdr. Benny Kaniak to look into the allegations. Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry issued an opinion late Tuesday to the effect that the sending of warning letters did not establish cause for taking administrative measures against those who received them except in exceptional circumstances. The top echelon of the ministry found that the nature of the suspicions against Levy and Gilboa did constitute exceptional circumstances and would have justified taking such measures against them. However, since neither of them currently holds a specific position in the police force, and the police have made clear that neither of them will be appointed to one before the committee submits its report and recommendations, there was no need to take action against them either. The decision came at the end of a meeting held by Mazuz with State Attorney Eran Shendar, Deputy Attorneys-General Malchiel Blass and Yehoshua Schoffman and others. They concluded that "the procedure [of sending warning letters] was not, in and of itself, enough to establish a legal basis for suspending those who received them." The warning letters did not include the evidence necessary to prove the allegations and they were also not the final word, the participants agreed. Mazuz, did however, say that "if the allegations in the final report are as serious as the interim findings, there will be no possibility other than to remove certain people from their positions." While police struggled to recover from the "earthquake" the PID offered a positive spin on the committee's findings, which singled out PID director Herzl Shviro and criticized the organization for not conducting an investigation into Levy's mob ties independent of Ben-Or's testimony. PID officials emphasized that "the committee does not address the investigation carried out by the PID since the beginning of 2005, but rather to previous decisions made a number of years ago with regard to the need to open an investigation in accordance to the picture of the situation at that time." Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.