'It didn’t occur to me that we were doing anything wrong'

Travel agency boss describes convoluted process for submitting Olmert’s invoices.

Olmert reads statement 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Olmert reads statement 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Taking the stand at the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday morning, Ayala Travel Agency CEO Michael Azoulay testified in the ongoing Rishon Tours corruption trial, in which former prime minister Ehud Olmert is alleged to have funneled government funds through a series of travel agencies to purchase private flights abroad for himself and his family.
According to the indictment, Ayala was one of the businesses that acted as an intermediary for transferring money between the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and Rishon Tours, the travel agency at the center of the scandal. As part of his testimony, Azoulay detailed some of the methods that were employed to carry out the transfers, and said that the manager of Rishon Tours, Yossi Klinger, had contacted him in August 2003 and asked him to submit invoices for Olmert’s travel expenses to the ministry, which totaled some $72,000.
“This is a man who I always considered to be serious and reliable,” Azoulay said of Klinger during Thursday’s proceedings. “He told me that he had a problem, and explained that his boss was a personal friend of Olmert’s, who had served him during his time [as mayor] at the Jerusalem Municipality and for decades before that.”
According to Azoulay, Klinger told him that because of those connections, he couldn’t collect the money himself, and asked Azoulay to submit the invoices, collect the money and pass it along to him.
“I told him that there were conditions, and that he had to give us a nine percent discount [on future transactions between the two travel agencies],” Azoulay added. “He said that he had no problem with that.”
Azoulay added that he had also told Klinger that he would take one percent of the invoices, as a part of the deal. “And he agreed to that as well,” Azoulay said.
Deputy District Attorney Uri Korev, who cross examined Azoulay on Thursday, asked him if such requests were considered acceptable in the travel industry, and if not, why he went along with them anyway.
“I believed [Klinger] to be a trustworthy person,” Azoulay repeated.“And it didn’t occur to me that we were doing anything wrong. I wouldlike to emphasize however, that I make a lot of decisions, and this isone decision that I’m not happy with.”
Asked later how he had described the transactions to investigators,Azoulay acknowledged that he had told them, “it was more or less a wayto ‘kasher the sheretz’ [a play on Jewish religiouslegalese for making clean what is unclean].”
Azoulay added that at first, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry hadrefused to pay the expenses and began asking questions about theflights. According to Azoulay, he then wrote letters to ministryofficials with the assistance of Klinger and Rachel Risby-Raz, Olmert’stravel coordinator, so as not to arouse the suspicions of theministry’s accountant.
In response to the claims on Thursday, Olmert’s defense team said thatAzoulay “is a person that Olmert was never connected to. He had noknowledge of [Azoulay’s] actions.”
“He is, by his confession, a business fraud, and this has nothing to do with Olmert,” the defense’s statement concluded.