JERUSALEM – A panel of three Jerusalem regional court judges acquitted former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday of all corruption charges in the Rishon Tours and Moshe Talansky matters. The judges, though, found him guilty of breach of trust in the Investment Center affair, which took place during Olmert’s tenure as minister of industry, trade and labor nearly a decade ago.
The state prosecutor had charged Olmert with fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records, double billing, tax evasion and accepting bribes in the Rishon Tours and Talansky affairs nearly four years ago. During the course of the long legal battle, Talansky, a Long Island financier who co-founded the New Jerusalem Fund with Olmert, alleged in court that Olmert requested cash for various purposes. If the court had rendered a guilty verdict on the fraud charges, each charge would have carried a minimum jail term of three years. The breach of trust guilty verdict does not carry an automatic jail sentence, as the penalty is determined by judicial discretion.
Despite Olmert’s acquittals, the judges declared that the former prime minister’s former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, was guilty of two counts of fraud and breach of trust in the Rishon Tours case. Her conviction, which will almost certainly be challenged by her legal team, carries a minimum prison term of three years.
A cadre of legal experts and media commentators expressed surprise at the verdict on Olmert, especially in the Rishon Tours double-billing case whereby several witnesses maintained that both Olmert and Zaken were aware of double billing major Jewish organizations – and even orchestrated the action.
After the verdicts were handed down, the legal experts publicly questioned how Zaken, who was in constant daily contact with Olmert throughout most of his political career and updated him on all matters, could be found guilty while Olmert could emerge virtually unscathed.
Other legal pundits are arguing that Zaken is taking the fall for Olmert, despite the fact that she was allegedly offered immunity from prosecution had she turned state’s witness against her former boss. MK Dalia Itzik, a former political ally of Olmert’s during his tenure as prime minister and head of the Kadima Party, blasted State Attorney Moshe Lador. “This is one of the most severe legal earthquakes to ever hit Israel. It’s difficult to understand how supposedly rock-solid cases, which forced Olmert from office, collapsed. It’s absurd,” she said.
While expressing dismay with Zaken’s conviction, Olmert was ecstatic with his not guilty verdict on the corruption charges. “I knew I would be vindicated. There was no corruption or envelopes with money,” he told a horde of Israeli and foreign reporters at the Jerusalem courthouse. “This won’t be the last time you will be hearing from me.”
Olmert and Zaken’s legal battles, however, are far from over. Tuesday’s legal drama comes at the same time that Olmert, Zaken and former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski are being accused by the state prosecution’s main witness, a controversial businessman with a checkered reputation, as being central players in the so-called Holyland Affair. The Holyland trial is expected to last several months, with a verdict not expected until either later this year or early next year.