Tuesday the news broke that the police are investigating Interior Minister (and ex-con) Arye Deri and opposition leader (and former criminal defendant) Isaac Herzog. The two men are suspected of carrying out various forms of financial corruption.
Judging from the reports, neither man has reason to sleep easy. But then again, the investigations are nowhere near completion.
Which raises the question, why did law enforcement officials decide to reveal the ongoing criminal probes now? In the past, prosecutors have leaked investigations to influence elections. For instance, ahead of the 2003 Knesset election, Leora Glatt-Berkowitz, a prosecutor in the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv office, anonymously leaked that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was the subject of a bribery investigation.
Glatt-Berkowitz was prosecuted for the leak and received a slap on the wrist for her crime.
She told investigators flat out that she did it to diminish Sharon’s chance of winning the election.
Notably, the probe which was supposed to sink Sharon dragged on until 2008. It was officially closed two years after Sharon suffered a massive stroke and left political life. No indictments were filed.
In December 2014, shortly after last year’s Knesset election was called, the police announced investigators were in the midst of a massive corruption probe of then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.
The police insisted at the time that the timing of the announcement was dictated by the pace of the investigation, not the election calendar.
No one believed them, and rightly so.
Despite the supposed urgency of “the greatest corruption investigation in Israel’s history,” 15 months later not one indictment has been issued.
But today, no elections are on the horizon.
So what motivated enforcement and prosecution sources to leak the Deri and Herzog probes? Who wanted the lead headlines to be about the grandeur of Deri’s vacation homes or Herzog’s questionable election finance activities? Who wanted to have stories about brave police investigators and prosecutors fearlessly slaying corrupt pols?
Without questioning the source of the leaks, we really can’t know for certain. But the one thing that is clear about the stories. They help the public forget Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision earlier this month to close the criminal probe against former Tel Aviv district attorney Ruth David.
David, who served as district attorney from 2002 through 2010, is on trial for her role in the illicit activities of attorney Ronel Fisher, whom she went into private practice with in 2013. Fisher is charged with soliciting and receiving bribes from his clients in exchange for getting police investigations against his clients closed. He shared the payoffs with his corrupt police counterpart, investigator Eran Malcha.
David is accused of using classified police documents acquired illegally from Malcha to tip off her client Yair Biton about a criminal investigation against him.
Shortly after David’s initial arrest last May, then-attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein ordered a probe of her activities as district attorney. He decided to close the investigation shortly before he left office last month. Acting on Weinstein’s decision, Mandelblit officially closed the probe.
Weinstein’s and Mandelblit’s decisions are a scandal of epic proportions. Investigative reports into her actions carried out by journalists since her arrest make clear that there is a lot that needs to be investigated about David’s actions as district attorney. Their decision not to do so stinks of a cover-up.
Consider just two stories reported in recent months.
Shortly after David took over the Tel Aviv district prosecution, news broke of the largest bank theft in Israeli history. Eti Allon, a bank teller at the Commercial Bank, stole NIS 250 million from the bank between 1998 and 2002.
The bank declared bankruptcy and shut down shortly after her actions were discovered.
Allon’s scam involved creating more than 200 phony accounts to which she lent money. Allon transferred the money from the fictitious accounts to crime families, led by the Abergil crime family, to pay off her brother Ofer Maximov’s gambling debts.
Allon’s stolen funds transformed organized crime in Israel. The Abergil family in particular went from being a gang of small-time neighborhood mobsters to becoming an international drug cartel.
One of the main middlemen who transferred and laundered the money Allon stole was local crime boss and a member of the Abergil crime family Gabi Ben-Haroush. One of the ways Ben-Haroush laundered Allon’s money was by going into a partnership with Yair Biton in Biton’s construction company.
Ben-Haroush fled to the US after word got out that Allon was under arrest. Setting up shop in Los Angeles, he partnered with a former Israeli who was under investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
It fell to David to indict Ben-Haroush and convince US authorities to extradite him for prosecution. Yet rather than insist that Ben- Haroush be returned to Israel, David took a backseat to DEA investigators. For their part, DEA officers used Ben Haroush to get to the subject of their probe. They let him cop a plea, for which he received a six-month suspended sentence and a one-way ticket to a country of his choice.
Ben-Haroush decamped to Morocco, where he lives in high style. Allon and Maximov were sentenced to 17 years in prison.
At the time, David’s failure to secure Ben- Haroush’s extradition was chalked up to a combination of basic incompetence and bad luck. But then his partner Biton was her first client after she left government service. Now she is on trial for illegal actions she allegedly took on Biton’s behalf, which like the Eti Allon investigation, are related to money laundering for the Abergil crime family.
It was Fisher who mediated David’s connection with Biton. Fisher and David have reportedly had a close relationship since the early days of her tenure as district attorney.
Throughout that period, Fisher was Biton’s attorney.
One of the subjects of the probe that Mandelblit just closed was the fact that David accepted expensive gifts from Biton and Fisher during her service as district attorney.
By closing the investigation, Mandelblit ensured that we will never know if Tel Aviv prosecutors acted on behalf of the mob in their mishandling of the investigation of the bank heist that transformed Israeli organized crime.
Then there is David’s handling of an investigation of the Tax Authority.
Late last month Channel 10 broadcast an investigative report by Orna Ben Dor into David’s behavior as district attorney. Ben Dor reported that in 2003, David received several dozen binders filled with the findings of an undercover investigation of alleged criminal corruption on the part of senior tax officials.
The investigation, which was carried out for a year and a half, was led by then-head of the VAT office for the Tel Aviv district Shuky Mashul.
Three days after receiving the materials, David closed the investigation. She then opened an aggressive criminal probe of Mashul. The investigation destroyed his career.
He was eventually found guilty of improperly using NIS 583.
Mashul’s attorney Menachem Rubinstein told Ben Dor that in 2004, Mashul was approached by Fisher. Fisher told Mashul that he was having an affair with David and that if Mashul paid him $20,000 and agreed to leave the VAT Authority, David would close the case against him.
Rubinstein told the presiding judge about Fisher’s offer, but she did nothing.
Within 24 hours of David’s arrest last May, State Attorney Shai Nitzan told reporters, “The crimes Ruth David committed were committed only after she left the state prosecution.”
It was far from clear, even at the time, how he could be so certain of his conclusion.
Weinstein led the now closed probe into David’s actions during her tenure as district attorney. According to Ben Dor’s report, Weinstein has a longstanding friendship with Fisher. Before he was appointed attorney-general, Weinstein went sailing more than once with Fisher on Fisher’s yacht. Weinstein was a guest at an intimate party Fisher held in honor of his son’s bar mitzva.
To justify his decision to close his investigation of David’s behavior as district attorney, Weinstein said that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her and that anyway, the allegations against her were too old to prosecute.
This brings us back to our corrupt politicians.
Because we understand that power corrupts, we limit the powers of our elected officials.
The most important limit on politicians’ power is their need to stand for election on a regular basis. Voters can replace politicians with others if incumbents fail to meet their expectations.
But power corrupts appointed officials just as much as it corrupts elected ones.
Voters have no similar authority over bureaucrats who fail them. The public didn’t appoint them, and they owe it no account for their behavior. Indeed, the way Israel’s governing bureaucracy – particularly its legal fraternity – has developed over the past 25 years has brought about a situation where prosecutors are only accountable to other prosecutors.
And as Shai Nitzan’s scandalous determination just hours after David’s arrest, that she did nothing wrong during her tenure in office, signaled, the prosecution will not investigate its own. So, members of the state prosecution have no reason to expose corruption in their system or the corruption of their peers or bosses. Indeed, it is in their interest to turn a blind eye and go along to get along.
There is only one way to clean out the legal fraternity’s stables. That is by subordinating the prosecution and the attorney-general to elected officials. If the prosecution were accountable to the government, then the justice minister could have fired David for failing to secure Ben-Haroush’s extradition instead of leaving her in office for eight years. The public security minister could order the investigation of failed police investigators or simply fire them before they develop into a criminal syndicate.
Most important, if politicians failed to keep the prosecution and police clean, the public could punish them for their actions by electing someone else to do the job.
We may never know exactly why prosecutors decided to leak the story of the probes against Deri and Herzog this week. But we can say with certainty that someone wanted us to talk about corrupt politicians this week.
And since we live in a country where Ruth David is treated better than our elected officials, it is impossible to wish away the growing sense that not only is there something off about the timing of the announcement, there is something deeply corrupt about the entire law enforcement system.