'Sheetrit took bribes for more Holyland apartments'

‘S.D.’ testifies that former Jerusalem city engineer expedited planning approval after receiving NIS 130,000.

Holyland 390 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Holyland 390
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
The state witness in the Holyland affair testified on Sunday that the entrepreneurs behind the building project bribed officials to allow them to build more apartments than originally permitted in the controversial complex.
The prosecution contends that the Holyland developers made use of the so-called ‘Sheves regulation,’ a decades-old planning law named after Shimon Sheves, the director of the Prime Minister’s Office under Yitzhak Rabin.
Introduced back in 1990, the purpose of the regulation was to allow developers to increase the capacity of residential buildings constructed for new immigrants. The Sheves regulation allows developers to change building plans and add more units to already-approved projects.
S.D. testified that the original Holyland planning allowed for 290-300 housing units in one of the buildings, whereas using the Sheves regulation, 338 apartments were built.
Prosecuting attorney Eti Ben-Dor argued that Holyland developers obtained approval using the Sheves regulation after paying out bribes to former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski.
In Sunday’s testimony, S.D. said that Sheetrit had confirmed significant changes to a bridge near the Holyland project without first obtaining the requisite approval from the regional planning committee.
The changes included the location and width of the bridge, S.D. told the court.
S.D. claims to have acted as a middleman, facilitating bribes between Hillel Cherny, owner of the Holyland corporation, and Jerusalem officials.
In previous testimony, S.D. said he carried out that activity with Cherny’s full knowledge and consent. In a previous hearing, S.D. said he handed over checks worth over NIS 130,000 in bribes to Sheetrit, who served as head of Jerusalem’s planning department and city engineer between 2001-2005.
In Sunday’s hearing, S.D. testified that Sheetrit’s moves regarding the bridge were made with Cherny’s full knowledge.
In his testimony S.D. referenced planning documents for the bridge, which the prosecution said had been seized from the offices of the Holyland Tayarut [tourism] company, which is also named on the indictment.
The state witness testified that the reason for the changes was to save a substantial amount of money by shortening building schedules.
During the hearing, several defense lawyers, including Cherny’s counsel, attorney Giora Adereth, objected that the prosecution was asking S.D. to confirm the content of documents rather than asking him to answer specific questions in his own words.
Thirteen individuals – among them former prime minister Ehud Olmert – and three companies are standing trial over the Holyland affair, the largest real estate scandal in Israel’s history. The indictment charges that Holyland real estate developers paid tens of millions of shekels in bribes to public employees and elected officials to advance the Jerusalem construction projects, including by substantially shortening planning times, smoothing over planning objections, rezoning land and giving tax breaks.
In addition to Olmert, Sheetrit, Lupolianski and Cherny, former Jerusalem deputy mayor and city councilman Eli Simhayof, Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken and city councilman Avraham Finer are also standing trial.
Also indicted are former Polar Investments CEO Avigdor Kelner, Polar Investments manager Amnon Safran, CEO of Kardan Real Estate Shimon Galon and Jerusalem entrepreneur Meir Rabin.The indictment also includes charges against former chairman of Bank Hapoalim and Israel Salt Industries Dan Dankner and former Israel Lands Authority head Yaakov Efrati, for alleged bribery.
The Tel Aviv District Court has heard testimony from state witness S.D., whose identity is subject to a gag order, for the past two weeks. Originally the court scheduled marathon 10-hour sessions for S.D., in order to complete his testimony within two weeks. However, Judge David Rozen scheduled an extra day of testimony for Sunday, before the courts’ summer recess, after several hearings were cut short when S.D. – an elderly and ailing man – felt unwell and had to take breaks from the witness stand.
In his two weeks on the witness stand, S.D. has given damning testimony against the defendants, in particular former prime minister Olmert, to whom S.D. claims he gave NIS 1.5 million from Cherny.
Olmert, who denies the charges against him, has called S.D. a liar and said his testimony is “fairy tales,” while lawyers for the defense have also attacked S.D.’s credibility, saying that he made a deal with the state to safeguard his own future.
The court will convene again to hear further testimony from S.D. on September 2, following the courts’ summer recess.