‘S.D.’ contradictions may crush Holyland case

Analysis: State’s witness admits paying bribes from own pocket, in own interest.

Holyland 390 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Holyland 390
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
The story of the state’s key witness in the Holyland case – referred to only as “S.D.” under a gag order – continued to crumble with some dramatic contradictions on Sunday, only days after the witness returned from the hospital.
The most important part of the witness’s story regarding former prime minister Ehud Olmert was an alleged NIS 1.5 million in bribes that S.D. gave to Olmert – or at Olmert’s behest – through 1999, as well as more than an additional NIS 500,000 after 1999, to move the Holyland project forward.
Part of what has so far made the case so compelling is the sheer amount of evidence and number of defendants, making the issue appear to be a widespread, controlled fraud network.
It made sense that a man as powerful and influential as Holyland project owner Hillel Cherny would have a middleman to pay off public officials – in order to distance himself from the transactions and maintain some plausible deniability.
Until now, S.D.’s narrative, not just in one instance, but in explaining how the entire bribery scheme worked, was that Cherny would funnel him funds, which he would pass on to public officials such as Olmert.
With cracks appearing here and there regarding particular events, that story held, at least until Sunday.
Then, the cracks became a chasm, as S.D. admitted that a substantial amount of the funds he gave to Olmert’s brother Yossi, at Olmert’s behest (as much as NIS 500,000), had come out of his own pocket, and not via Cherny.
This revelation was significant, because it could break open the entire idea that there was a network of fraud and deals between S.D., Cherny, Olmert and the other 14 defendants.
It appears that S.D. was acting on his own, without the others’ knowledge.
This is good for Cherny, but it also reaps huge dividends for Olmert.
If the story of the fraud network falls apart and S.D. was acting on his own, then maybe even if S.D. gave Olmert money, it was not a bribe in the criminal sense – but a financial donation.
Such a donation to someone in a position to influence a building project does not look good – and might have the appearance of impropriety – but it makes it much harder to call Olmert’s behavior, criminal.
In other words, S.D. was trying to bribe people whether they asked for the bribe, or not, and whether they knew they were being bribed, or not.
Except that to actually be bribed, you have to know it’s a bribe.
What made matters worse was that S.D. admitted that part of the reason he was paying the bribes was that he himself had a financial interest in moving the Holyland project forward, past legal obstacles.
S.D.’s testimony even implied that he enjoyed the challenge of getting the project through the system and overcoming the legal obstacles, as proof of his resourcefulness.
Other key aspects of S.D.’s accusations against Olmert also crumbled from the concrete to vague ambiguities, with S.D. appearing to take action on his own.
Regarding the funds that S.D.
testified he had given Yossi Olmert, he had specifically said that he had used checks from his own account and had made them payable to Yossi Olmert.
On Sunday, S.D. said he did not know which account he had drawn the checks on, and that he had not filled in the name of the payee.
This suggests more ambiguity, both regarding payments S.D. said he made at Olmert’s behest, and their purpose and motivation.
If this is unclear, then it is hard to convict anyone involved of a crime besides S.D. – who has immunity as state’s witness.
The case is not over and Olmert is not yet off the hook after these, or last week’s – not insignificant – contradictions.
Even Sunday’s contradictions technically were only regarding bribes from 2002 and later, not earlier alleged bribes.
But trials are also about the credibility of witnesses, and it is becoming harder to see what part of the state’s case against Olmert is provable beyond a reasonable doubt.