State, Olmert spar over corruption ruling

Former PM preempts moral turpitude hearing on actions in Investment Center affair that could bar him from public office.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert in court 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert in court 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s legal team gave the state attorney pause at Wednesday’s corruption trial sentencing hearing, as the state indefinitely postponed the issue of moral turpitude, culminating a dizzying 24 hours of announcements and surprises on the issue.
The indefinite postponement of the issue of moral turpitude means that Olmert’s potential to return to politics stays alive for now and is a further success in his legal battle to clear his name.
Olmert was previously acquitted of most of the corruption- related crimes he had been charged with, but was convicted of breach of public trust in the Investment Center Affair.
A breach of public trust can, but does not necessarily, carry with it a holding that the actions of the person convicted constituted moral turpitude. A court finding of moral turpitude would effectively end Olmert’s career in light of his age (he will turn 67 on September 30) and the consequence that he would need to wait seven years before returning to politics.
There is no guarantee that the court would have granted the state’s request regarding moral turpitude, but the state’s postponement of the issue essentially took it off the court’s agenda. Technically, in some circumstances, a court could find moral turpitude on its own, but it is highly unlikely that the court would stick its neck out to that extent in a case regarding a former prime minister such as Olmert.
The state also asked for the court to sentence Olmert to six months in prison, but in the same breath said that it would recommend that he serve his sentence through community service.
The state also asked for a conditional prison sentence – or a finding that Olmert could get penalized with a longer prison sentence if he commits a similar crime in the future – and a fine.
Toward the end of the marathon hearing, Olmert responded emotionally to the state’s requests regarding sentencing.
He said that he had difficulty answering his grandchildren who had asked him if the negative things that they heard about him in school were true.
Olmert also said that the whole process had been an unprecedented assault on him and his family, but that he accepted whatever the court’s decision would be about his fate, adding that he hoped he could walk out of the court house standing tall.
Regardless of the outcome on some of the other issues, Olmert has won – presuming the court is not more upset over Olmert’s conduct than the state – at least for now, on the two major issues to be resolved: no ruling on moral turpitude for the foreseeable future and no prison time.
In his public argument, the state’s lead attorney in the case, former Jerusalem district attorney Eli Abarbanel, did not address the state’s deferral of the issue in depth.
In fact, after noting all of what he considered Olmert’s improper conduct for over an hour, at midday, Abarbanel asked for a break before continuing without mentioning the issue.
In response to his request for a break, the judges, who looked tired from the long hearing, perked up and asked when he would address the issue of moral turpitude, which they and all of the reporters packed into the room had been waiting for.
At this point Abarbanel, with shocking nonchalance, said that the issue was not relevant at the moment in light of recent statements by the defense.
During the break, a senior Justice Ministry lawyer involved in the case said they had not changed their position one iota.
“We still believe that his actions constituted moral turpitude,” said the lawyer.
The lawyer implied that if Olmert ever decided to run for office the issue of moral turpitude would be raised.
However, in light of the fact that Olmert had publicly announced he would give up his benefits as a former prime minister – including a staff, office, car and covering related expenses – and that he was not currently a public servant, “there is currently no reason to ask the court” to hold Olmert’s actions constituted moral turpitude, the lawyer said.
No one on the prosecution’s legal team explained how the state would seek a finding of moral turpitude after the court had already rendered its sentencing order.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said later in the day that there were plenty of ways the moral turpitude issue could be raised in the future, such as by the elections board, if Olmert decides to run for office.
This turn of events was all the more shocking because the prosecution’s legal team had aggressively and publicly rejected Olmert’s public “offer” to waive his public servant benefits less than 24 hours before.
Tuesday afternoon Olmert announced that he would preemptively give up the public benefits that he would lose if the court issued a finding of moral turpitude against him – if the state would drop the issue.
Within hours the state issued a scathing rejection. Its public letter said that Olmert was not in the driver’s seat on the issue of benefits.
The state said it would ignore his offer and would seek a finding of moral turpitude because his actions met the elements for such a finding. As a result of that finding, said the letter, he would lose his benefits, not because he volunteered.
But less than a day later in court, the state had changed its mind. The issue of moral turpitude will be postponed for another day – or permanently.
The hearing also included arguments by the parties regarding the sentencing of Shula Zaken, Olmert’s former bureau chief.
However, unlike Olmert who made no real new arguments regarding his sentencing, Zaken – who faces the real prospect of prison time, having been convicted for graver crimes – brought two character witnesses who testified about how she went above and beyond to help the common Jerusalemites when working for Olmert in the mayor’s office.