‘I’m innocent – really!’

It might appear that former Ramat Hasharon mayor Yitzhak Rochberger got off lightly, but the mark of moral turpitude is a bitter pill to swallow for the longtime public servant.

Yitzhak Rochberger (photo credit: RA’ANAN COHEN)
Yitzhak Rochberger
(photo credit: RA’ANAN COHEN)
As fate would have it, former Ramat Hasharon mayor Yitzhak Rochberger was sentenced on his 60th birthday.
“What a nice birthday present,” he says bitterly. “I didn’t expect such an extreme, terrible and cruel sentence, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised because the general atmosphere in Israel at the moment is really toxic. Deep inside my heart, I was hoping for a lighter sentence. This is not the way I’d planned on celebrating my birthday.”
Last December, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court convicted him of fraud, breach of public trust, forging corporate and other documents, using forged documents, and fraudulent receipt of NIS 118,000 from the Fund for Local Authority Workers, which he chaired from 2004- 2006.
Although the Local Authorities Law prohibits mayors from receiving salaries for additional work, Rochberger was eligible to receive reimbursements for expenses incurred on the job. According to the prosecution, however, he forged a portion of the receipts he submitted.
At the end of last month, he received a six-month suspended sentence, six months’ community service, an NIS 40,000 fine, and – the worst part, from his point of view – a ruling that his crime carried moral turpitude, which means he is forbidden to serve as mayor or in any other public office for seven years.
In the meantime, Rochberger has repaid all of the money he received, and he made a passionate public statement at the end of the session, saying that he had been wronged and that he was planning to appeal the decision.
Though he says he did not have any plans for an alternative birthday celebration in the event of a lighter sentence, he adds, “I think that if there had been no [ruling of] moral turpitude, the whole city would have been the ones out celebrating in the streets. I truly love the people of Ramat Hasharon, and I think the feeling is mutual.”
Rochberger knows what he’s talking about. He’s won the last three elections in landslide victories – including in 2013, when he was indicted just a few months before the municipal elections and six years after police first recommended trying him. One month before the elections, the High Court of Justice ordered that he be dismissed from his position, but it allowed him to run again.
He won the election, but announced a week later that he was suspending himself as mayor pending the trial’s outcome.
ROCHBERGER IS animated throughout our entire interview, only a few days after his sentencing.
“I’m the first person convicted in Israel who didn’t commit any offense,” he insists. “I was reimbursed for expenses that had been authorized by the [fund’s] board, which has an auditor and an accountant and lots of other important people.
The size of the fund when I was mayor was over NIS 4 billion, and I’m telling you that if I hadn’t been the one running the fund, its value would have gone down. I was the one who succeeded in retaining fund members. People remained in the fund because of my hard work. Receiving a reimbursement of NIS 118,000 [means I] harmed and even emptied out the NIS 4b.
fund? This is complete nonsense.”
Regarding claims that he created and submitted forged receipts for money that wasn’t really owed to him, he says that “in retrospect, I should have been more careful and not asked for refunds in the manner I did. I should have checked each receipt one by one. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a very organized person, that I just stick receipts in my pocket and stuff papers in my drawers. So, yes, I made a few mistakes. Five receipts for NIS 120 that were for my daughter’s English lessons got mixed up in the pile, a NIS 3,500 grocery receipt, another receipt for I don’t remember what and a trip my daughter took to Spain when she was 13 that happened to have the name Yitzhak Rochberger on it.
“After all, the fund checked all the receipts.
They know I didn’t travel to Spain for work, right? Can’t they understand that this was an honest mistake? Let’s go through every single Israeli citizen and check if 100 percent of what they do is perfect. Does it seem logical that I would mess around with these kinds of figures? But in the end, all of these amounts were really owed me.”
Elaborating on this, he says that “I never denied that some of the expenditures were for family members, because I had understood that this was acceptable.
Even regarding the criminal accusations, when a decision has been made that says I’m entitled to be reimbursed for my expenses as long as I submit receipts, then I interpret this as I understand it, and if you come and tell me that this is wrong, well, I still think I’m right. And if the board made a mistake when they accepted the receipts I submitted, then why aren’t they the ones being put on trial? Why am I the only one being punished? Because I’m a mayor with a colorful personality, or just because I’m the mayor? Why? How is it that when there are questions regarding the prime minister’s house in Caesarea...
no one bothers to check anything and he’s not held to the same standards?” The judge was evidently not impressed with his claims, however; he used harsh words against Rochberger in the sentencing, calling the mayor’s actions serious corruption.
“I’m not arguing with the judge’s ruling,” says Rochberger. “I approached him at the end of the session and said to him, ‘Your Honor, I’m having an extremely hard time accepting your verdict. This is very hard for me, and I think you are mistaken, but you brought honor to the legal system in the way you handled the trial overall.’ He responded that it was amazing for him to hear such things at the end of a trial.”
Still, he continues, “with all due respect for Israeli law, I’m the corrupt one? In my life, I’ve never had a stain on my reputation for, God forbid, corruption. Don’t the 10 years I worked as mayor, handling millions of shekels, count for anything? Or the torments I’ve been suffering for the last eight years? You know, after the sentencing, the judge wrote that his decision had been influenced by public opinion.
If that’s the way things work here, then the trial should have been held in Switzerland. The atmosphere is much better there.”
Even so, Rochberger seems to have gotten off easy, considering that the prosecution pushed for him to serve time in prison.
“And maybe the prosecutor’s office has its head in the clouds?” he responds.
“At the end of the day, the prosecutor is a prosecutor, and that’s his job. I wanted to make a deal with them and to be smart instead of being right, because when you walk into the courthouse, you never know how you’re going to come out.
A case that should have been dealt with in three months dragged on and on for a year-and-a-half – and not because of any fault of mine. I only brought in one witness – my secretary. I was willing to admit to a crime as a corporation director who hadn’t caused any harm to the corporation.
The punishment would have been a slap on the wrist and a fine of 10,000 old lira. The prosecution agreed, on condition that the issue of moral turpitude be dealt with in court, but I refused. What crime have I committed that justifies being charged with moral turpitude? They themselves said that my offense is one of the least problematic kinds.”
A LAWYER by profession, Rochberger often takes the printout of his verdict out of his drawer to leaf through it again in search of answers, but to no avail. He can see the municipality from his living room window, and it’s walking distance from his home, but for all intents and purposes, he might as well be looking at it from the Golan Heights.
“I sit at home and look out at the municipality from my window, and this makes me so sad and miserable,” he sighs. “You need to understand, I grew up in the Morasha neighborhood. Everyone was poor.
My father was a Holocaust survivor, my mother was Iraqi. I very quickly became a dominant figure in the neighborhood.
I was a counselor in a youth group, and I dreamed about the day when I’d be able to alter the face of the neighborhood and how things were run in the municipality.
Today, a gentrification project in the Yoseftal neighborhood that I initiated is finally getting off the ground. I’ve spent my entire life yearning to be mayor so that I could make a difference in this city, not so I could make money.”
A number of other mayors have been convicted and sentenced recently, including Shlomo Lahiani of Bat Yam, Zvi Bar of Ramat Gan, Shimon Gapso of Upper Nazareth and former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. Rochberger acknowledges this; asked if he thinks the court is picking on him alone, he replies in the negative.
“First of all, all of the people you mentioned are my friends – I have a lot of friends who are mayors. Those who’ve stumbled and taken bribes or engaged in illegal activity were convicted by the court. I didn’t say that I’m being picked on – I said that the public atmosphere influenced the court in its ruling against me. And by the way, many mayors who’ve had accusations brought against them told me that they think my case was a mistake and that I didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody thought it would come to this. You know, I’ve heard people say that when you’re elected, the National Fraud Unit immediately puts you on its radar for investigation.”
In the end, Rochberger did repay the full sum he was charged with taking.
“Two days after I received a draft of the audit report from Eli Levy, the chairman of the fund’s auditing committee, which listed a few receipts for super-small amounts, I went to the bank and asked for a NIS 118,000 loan. This was before the investigation had begun! They didn’t discuss with me the amount of NIS 118,000. They were talking about less than NIS 20,000. I came to the fund with the check and said, ‘I want you to figure out what belongs to you and what belongs to me.’ I wanted the investigation to go smoothly, so I resigned from the fund, because that’s my modus operandi in situations like this. To this day, they haven’t looked into my situation and haven’t reimbursed me even one shekel! In the end the judge said I need to pay a fine of NIS 40,000. What for? Ten years have passed and they haven’t looked into my case.”
Rochberger, who is married and has two sons and a daughter, says his family “has suffered terribly” as a result of the court’s decision.
“For two years, the police have been knocking on my door and carrying out unnecessary searches. Even the judge asked the police why they did this. I have nightmares all the time that the police have come again. It’s not so simple. I used to be a simple, normative person, and they’ve turned me into a monster. Most of the residents have been super supportive, but a handful of others have chosen to believe the lies and incitement,” he says.
“My father died last year at the ripe old age of 93,” he continues. “One man whom I didn’t use my connections to help, spat on him. My sons have also had people spit on them. I didn’t let these bullies scare me, but today I feel like my family is exposed, and I’m fearful for my life. If something happens to me or my family, I will hold the Israel Police completely responsible. I’ve lodged complaints with the police time and time again, but they don’t do anything. So I have surveillance cameras at home – big deal. I don’t give a damn about the police. They haven’t lifted a finger.”
What does he plan to do with his time until the appeal? “I’m the official champion of climbing the walls,” he says, a smile forming at the corner of his lips. But it fades as quickly as it appears.
“It’s even been hard for me to drag myself out of the house. Do you understand how great a punishment this moral turpitude decision has been for me? I’m not a businessman who only wants to make a buck. I’m a humble man. This is a rental apartment, and I rent out another apartment.
I received the apartment as compensation in 1973 when I lost the vision in my right eye. I don’t own any assets or capital. I have just one thing: my love for this town. I’ve spent my life working for the good of the community. I sacrificed my own family for this town. And now I need to start over from scratch.”
The lesson he has taken from this experience is not an optimistic one.
“Look, I knew that working in the public sector would not make my life easy. But I’m driven. I’m on a mission,” he says. “Today, I can truthfully say that anyone who goes into the public sector with the atmosphere how it is today is a fool and an idiot. There is no governance today, and what happened to me will also happen to others. If I was convicted, then everyone should fear being convicted.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.