Olmert denies direct involvement in double billing affair

Former PM testifies in Rishontours corruption trial: I thought the agency gave me efficient travel service. That is where it started and ended.

Olmert arriving at trial 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Olmert arriving at trial 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert testified in court over his involvement in the Rishontours double billing affair on Monday, claiming he never knowingly took money from charitable organizations to pay for flights for him and his family.
In his testimony, the third to date, Olmert attempted to distance himself from the everyday goings on of his office, claiming he had no knowledge of the way flight arrangements were made and paid for by his staff, saying he "never dealt with the small accounting issues," such as the price of airline tickets.
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Olmert was indicted on charges that he had billed two and sometimes three different organizations to pay for his flight expenses when traveling abroad. The prosecution identified 17 such trips during Olmert’s term as prime minister. Olmert stands accused of pocketing roughly NIS 90,000, which he allegedly used to pay for flight tickets and upgrades for his family members.
Olmert conceded that there may have been mistakes made in the payments for his flights, but rejected the claim that he knowingly tried to swindle non-profit organizations or that he was criminally responsible for the acts he was accused of.
He said that the mistakes might have arisen due to the fact that the flight plans were often made months in advance and his travel coordinator, Rachel Rizby Raz, who was brought before the court as part of the prosecution’s case, would often add additional sponsors as new events were scheduled. He stressed that the standing instructions had been only that the flights be paid for and it was never said, nor even hinted, that excess payments should be put aside. He said that as far as he knew, his family flew on points accumulated from his travels and when necessary paid for tickets out of his own private accounts.
“The thought that people believe that I would try to profit from these organizations, which are close to my heart, haunts me relentlessly. Who did I profit off of, AKIM [a non-profit that aids children with mental disabilities]? Aleh [The association for assisting blind students]? the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers?" said Olmert.
Olmert said that his flights were supposed to be paid for under conditions that everyone was aware of and that he believed his family was eligible to fly using frequent flier miles he accumulated on flights paid for by charity organizations.
Olmert denied having any direct contact with the manager of the Rishontours travel agency like the ones described in the indictment sheet. "I thought the agency gave me efficient travel related service. That is where it started and ended,” he said.
Olmert said that he himself never bothered with the details of the flight plans and had left it to his professional staff.
“From time to time, Rachel [Rizby Raz] would approach me with a specific question and I would answer her about it, but does anybody seriously think that the vice premier would sit with a calculator and make the calculations about who paid what?” said Olmert. “There are people whose judgment I trusted and continue to do so to this day. Even now I am convinced that they acted in good faith. They may have made mistakes, I may have made mistakes, but is there anyone who hasn’t? At the end of the day, if a mistake was made, the responsibility falls on the principal party, but personal responsibility in the criminal sense to gain profit?”
When asked about the payments for his wife Aliza’s flights to Rome and to South Korea, in which she accompanied him and which were allegedly paid for by double billing, Olmert said that as a rule the government should have paid for the flights, but that he let his staff take care of the details.
Olmert testified that for much of his time in the public service, he was in poor financial condition, owing money to the bank. He said that despite a relatively generous salary, he had to provide for four children who wanted to go to university abroad.