All of Israel wants to know: When did this country become so corrupt? When did you see the heads of the Income Tax Authority and the prime minister's right-hand woman getting arrested on suspicion of running a bribery-for-tax-breaks scam with their businessmen friends? The rottenness has reached the top! When did this start? How did it start? What have we come to? So, my fellow Israelis, I did a little research. I went though the Jerusalem Post archive for some news stories I wrote during my thankfully short time as a police reporter, and found this: TEL AVIV, September 13, 1990 - A senior Income Tax Authority administrator and a Tax Authority investigator were arrested yesterday on suspicion of taking bribes from private detectives in exchange for classified information on businessmen and other citizens, police said. It was a huge scandal, front-page headlines. In certain ways it wasn't as bad, though, as the current disaster because (1) it was uncovered by investigators of the Tax Authority itself, and (2) the head of the authority at the time, Moshe Gavish, was on the side of the law. But in another way, that 1990 bribery affair seemed worse, because while the people arrested weren't as high up in the Tax Authority as those arrested just now, the official corruption revealed at the start was much more widespread. TEL AVIV, September 16, 1990 - Private detectives bribed employees in the IDF, police, banks, hospitals, and many other government and public institutions for classified information about "thousands upon thousands" of people, police alleged in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Friday. The revelation spread the bribery-for-information scandal at the Income Tax Authority, which came to light with a series of arrests last Wednesday, into nearly every corner of Israel's public sector... "All information got out," [Chief Inspector Haim] Pinchas emphasized. "We're talking about large-scale security and economic damage that has been done to the country." Other agencies in which employees allegedly leaked information in return for bribes were the Interior Ministry, Bezeq, the Housing Ministry, the National Insurance Institute, the Licensing Bureau, the Property Tax Administration, Kupat Holim clinics, and the Public Works Division. I wasn't able to trace how that case turned out - how many of the additional suspects were arrested, who got convicted, who got acquitted. But whether or not the people arrested were ultimately found guilty, this story was not the product of the police department's imagination. I was given the lay of the land by a couple of Tel Aviv private detectives who had managed to stay out of jail. TEL AVIV, September 14, 1990 - For the right price, you can get any information you want from any government office, except the Defense Ministry, two Tel Aviv detectives told The Jerusalem Post yesterday. The Income Tax Authority is the favored - and most expensive - source, because its computers have the most data... "This is an open secret, which is common knowledge to the police and which has been going on since the first private detective was born," said the two, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's no other way to get this information..." Prices paid for "confidential" data range from NIS 50 to NIS 2,000. The most expensive item is the "sheet," or computer print-out from the Income Tax Authority computers, said the detectives. On the print-out are all a citizen's assets - businesses (including profits and losses), homes, vehicles and bank accounts - going back four years. A COUPLE of days ago I was reading Yediot Aharonot columnist Sever Plotzker's front-page piece about the present infamy at the Tax Authority, and he mentioned macherim - the go-betweens hired by wealthy businessmen to buy off a tax official. I remembered that those two detectives I talked many years ago had mentioned macherim, too. Sometimes detectives get the information directly from government employees, sometimes from other detectives with better connections, and sometimes through brokers - known variously as chapperim, macherim, and shtinkerim - who purchase the information and sell it to investigators. The more middlemen, the higher the final price to the client. I wonder if this is still going on. Unfortunately, I don't know any private detectives anymore who will tell me off-the-record about their professional relationships with officials in Israel's public sector. But a couple things seem pretty clear. For one, if that 1990 scandal resulted in a "house-cleaning" in the Income Tax Authority, the house appears to have gotten dirty again - and not just the floors in one or two of the kids' bedrooms, but the floors and even the sheets and pillows in the master bedroom. Another thing we know is that if, by 1990, bribery had become a way of life on at least the lower levels of virtually every Israeli government body, this way of life didn't begin in 1990. It began before. How long before? "Since the first private detective was born," I was told, but who really knows? All that garbage came to the surface 16 years ago. Does anybody believe the situation has improved since then? The only question is how high and how far the Israeli system of baksheesh has taken hold. We may never know that, either. Unfortunately, one thing, one more thing, that we do know is when it will end.