Court sentences Olmert to 6 years in prison; first Israeli PM ever to go behind bars

Judge: Olmert, others who took bribes are like "traitors" to public's faith; court says Olmert to begin sentence Sept. 1, pending appeal.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: YOTAM RONEN)
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: YOTAM RONEN)
Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen on Tuesday sentenced former prime minister Ehud Olmert to six years’ prison time for two counts of bribery in the Holyland trial.
The prosecution had asked for a minimum sentence of six years.
Olmert’s spokesman has indicated that he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The judge delayed the arrest and imprisonment of all of the Holyland defendants until September 1.
Olmert and the other defendants may further delay any prison time by filing an appeal within 45 days and asking the Supreme Court to delay their imprisonment pending a decision on it.
A similar request made to the Supreme Court in 2011 by former president Moshe Katsav was honored by the court and delayed his imprisonment for about six months.
Olmert could obtain an even longer delay due to the complexities of this case. They include his July 2012 Jerusalem corruption trial appeal, also before the Supreme Court, and an expected new indictment against him for allegedly blocking his former top aide Shula Zaken from cooperating with the state.
On the flip side, the court’s grace period until September 1 was granted without giving the state a chance to protest, and prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said the state might consider fighting against it.
Rozen also imposed a fine of NIS 1 million while ordering authorities to seize NIS 560,000 in funds accumulated by the former premier.
In introducing his sentence, Rozen said that bribery “by its nature does not limit itself, but spreads out, erodes and causes the collapse of public institutions and the rule of law.”
Referring to Olmert and the other defendants, the court said that “one who takes bribes is in the category of being a traitor – a person who embezzles and who betrays the faith invested in him, faith without which no proper public service could exist.”
The court’s use of the word “traitor” and other extremely harsh metaphorical language is seen as a controversial expression of Rozen’s view of the severity of the crimes committed.
Olmert’s lawyer Eli Zohar had asked the court to sentence him only to community service, and argued that even an extreme interpretation of Supreme Court precedent could not sustain a prison sentence longer than 18 months.
Experts had been estimating that Olmert would likely get at least a few years in prison, and that his being prime minister would not get him special treatment.
Rozen gave no quarter to Olmert regarding the media “lynch” that he complained was already partial punishment and for which some courts have had sympathy in the past.
Rozen said in his decision that the higher the public post of an individual – with Olmert having been at “the peak of peaks” – the harsher the punishment for bribery should be.
The judge added that Olmert was an extremely talented man who made a great contribution to the state through his public service.
He said, however, that his hands were tied by law to certain set punishment guidelines without discretion, saying in a protest to the Knesset that an amendment binding judges’ sentencing to mandatory guidelines should be overturned.
Rozen said that Olmert was guilty of “moral turpitude,” meaning that he would not be allowed to reenter politics for at least seven years after he exits jail, should his appeal fail.
Hillel Cherny, the key initiator behind the Holyland real estate project and who was convicted of bribing officials to advance the project, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on Tuesday.
The state had asked that Cherny be given nine years for his crimes.
Former Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his involvement in the case.
The Holyland real estate scandal has been called the worst bribery and fraud scheme in Israel’s history.
Of the 13 prominent public officials and business leaders, 10 received convictions of bribery, money-laundering and other crimes on March 31.
At the center of the scheme were Cherny and Shmuel Duchner, who, before dying in March 2013, turned state’s witness and was the backbone of the state’s case.
The two, along with others, bribed officials in exchange for their violating zoning and legal regulation for the Holyland real estate project in south Jerusalem, generally from the mid-1990s until a few years into the 2000s, when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and then infrastructure, industry and trade minister.
Other prominent defendants convicted include former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, former top aide Shula Zaken and a line of other former Jerusalem officials.
Zaken is to be sentenced on Thursday, and Lupolianski and another former Jerusalem official, Avraham Penner, are to be sentenced on June 9. The other six defendants, plus Olmert, were all sentenced together to between three-and-a-half to seven years in prison on Tuesday.
Only days before the March 31 verdict, Zaken cut a plea bargain with the prosecution to help with new charges against Olmert in exchange for a “light” sentence of only 11 months in prison, but Rozen has expressed skepticism whether her cooperation justifies reducing a sentence that could have been several years long.
Lupolianski could get an extra-light sentence due to his health issues.
While he was acquitted on multiple bribery charges, Olmert was convicted of some of the most serious charges, including two charges of indirectly receiving bribes for NIS 60,000 via Zaken and confidante Uri Messer and NIS 500,000 through his brother Yossi. The court rejected most of his defenses.
In its verdict, the court said that Zaken had been Olmert’s “right hand.”
It added that it was not believable that she was receiving such large sums of money (the court said it probably would have convicted Olmert of even larger sums, but some of the funds were outdated by the statute of limitations), some of which benefited his election fund-raising, without her informing him.
Rozen said that Zaken even got convicted in the prior Jerusalem corruption trial rather than testify against Olmert, showing how close and in tandem the two were.
On the NIS 500,000 in bribes given to Yossi Olmert to help pay off his debts, the court completely rejected Ehud Olmert’s story that he did not know that Duchner gave the money to the former.
The court added that there was no reason for Duchner to give Yossi Olmert money except at Ehud Olmert’s request since they did not know each other.
Rozen said that Duchner was always careful to make sure sponsors like Olmert knew he had given bribes to secure their assistance with the Holyland project.
Olmert never tried to get Rozen’s sympathy to make a personal play for a more lenient sentence.
At his pre-sentencing hearing, instead of expressing regret to get a lenient sentence, as Rozen recommended to the defendants, Olmert stared down the court and defiantly exclaimed that he had never taken a bribe of any kind, directly, indirectly, through allies or through family members.
An appeal could be a long-shot since much of the conviction rested on factual findings and Rozen’s impressions of the witnesses, with most judges loathing to reverse lower-court rulings on such issues as opposed to issues of legal interpretation.