Comptroller set to probe PM's financial issues

Inquiry slowed by need for legal guidance by attorney-general; NGO says state should only pay for 1 of Netanyahu's 2 houses.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira will hold meetings this week to investigate the various financial controversies surrounding Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from “Bibi Tours” to the general jump in expenses to “Bedgate,” his spokesman said on Sunday.
Shapira is reportedly asking Netanyahu’s office for various clarifications regarding the allegations, though Shapira’s spokesman downplayed the possibility of any immediate major developments.
Part of Shapira’s investigation is being held up as he waits for legal advice from Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein as to which aspects of investigating the prime minister’s finances are within his authority.
A Justice Ministry spokesman confirmed that the Attorney- General’s Office was considering the issue and had not reached a final conclusion.
Last week, the good-governance NGO Ometz sent a letter to Shapira requesting asking that he publish his much-followed “Bibi Tours” report regarding Netanyahu’s allegedly problematic flights funded by wealthy associates from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
The letter came after the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel asked that Shapira investigate the “Bed-gate” affair, also connected to Netanyahu’s supposed penchant for overdone luxurious travel.
Next, it was made public that the prime minister’s expenses jumped 80 percent from 2009 to 2012, following a request by the Movement for Freedom of Information.
According to the organization, the information was provided – after months of requests – hours after the group petitioned the Jerusalem District Court.
Meanwhile, the Movement for the Quality of Government on Sunday demanded a series of explanations from the Finance Ministry regarding the controversies.
The movement said that the state should only pay for the prime minister’s expenses in one of his two private houses, for his home in Caesarea and not the one on Jerusalem’s Aza Street.
Next, the movement said the expense list for Caesarea was far too general and needed to be broken down further to allow the assessment of what were private expenses and what were public-office related expenses.
While the three stories overlap thematically, the “Bibi Tours” affair is from a year ago and involves allegations of unethical conduct, whereas “Bed-gate” and the jump in expenses relate to Netanyahu’s recent flights and general expenses as prime minister and are merely a black eye from a public relations perspective during a time when the state is swamped with talk of budget cuts.
Following an exposé on how much Netanyahu’s double bed cost on his recent El Al flight to London, he announced on Saturday night that he would no longer ask that a double bed be installed on his plane during short trips such as to Europe.
Channel 10 had reported earlier in May that for Netanyahu’s flight to the United Kingdom for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral last month, the Prime Minister’s Office had requested that a double bed be installed, costing taxpayers $127,000.
The Prime Minister’s Office reacted to the exposé, saying that Netanyahu was not aware of the decision to install a bed for that flight. Nevertheless, immediately following the report, the office released a detailed explanation of why it was decided he should have the bed.
Sources close to the prime minister said, “It is important that he sleeps well in order to comply with complex tasks, but it’s possible to do so at a much lower cost, and this is what will be done.”
Two other airlines, Israir and Arkia, could have been used for the flight at a far cheaper cost of around $300,000 (versus the $427,000 cost of the El Al flight), but were eliminated from any real chance of running the flight as they did not have sufficient space on board to accommodate a double bed.
The Bibi-Tours affair has been on pause since February, when Netanyahu and 30 other ministers and deputy ministers submitted their responses to a draft of the State Comptroller’s Report on the issue.
The draft reportedly reviewed allegations of improper funding and double billing for international trips Netanyahu and other top officials took.
Shapira sent Netanyahu the draft of the report at the end of December.
In March 2011, Channel 10 investigative reporter Raviv Drucker reported on his show, Hamakor, on a series of flights that Netanyahu took with his wife, Sara, in the late 1990s and early 2000s – flights allegedly funded by wealthy associates.
According to Drucker’s report, Netanyahu allegedly used a carefully crafted network of such associates to finance private flights, luxury hotel suites, first-class restaurants, and trips abroad for himself and his family – benefits that the show characterized as ethical infractions.
In April 2011, Drucker made additional allegations on his show, saying that on two occasions before he became prime minister, Netanyahu billed different organizations for the same flight.
According to the figures, some NIS 5.43 million was budgeted for operating and maintenance costs for Netanyahu’s private residences in Jerusalem and in Caesarea in 2012, as opposed to NIS 3.02m. in 2009.
The state paid NIS 480,000 for food and official hospitality in 2012, as opposed to NIS 214,000 in 2009. Cleaning and maintenance costs in the two residences soared from NIS 553,000 in 2009 to NIS 1.2m.
in 2012, and the cost of buying housing utensils and furniture jumped from NIS 61,000 in 2009 to NIS 108,000 last year.
The Prime Minister’s Office released a statement in response saying that the numbers included “the expenses for official events held in the prime minister’s home and working expenses for the many meetings held there.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.