Published On: Tue, May 24th, 2016

State comptroller: AG’s office covering up Netanyahu travels affair

Comptroller says attorney general Mandelblit and predecessor Weistein stalling investigation so statute of limitations expires on incidents in question; says suspicion of criminal activity in Israel Bonds funding of Netanyahu's trips and misuse of state-accumulated frequent flier miles for private trips.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and wife Sara Photo  Amos Ben Gershom,   GPO

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira has accused the Attorney General’s office of covering up the “Bibitours Affair, ” pertaining to the funding of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family’s travels while he was and MK and finance minister between the years 2003-2005.

The comptroller stipulates that former attorney general Yehuda Weinsten and his successor Avichai Mandelblit have been stalling the investigation into the matter so that the statute of limitations on the investigation material expires, making it inadmissible in court.

Channel 2 reported on Monday that the police restarted its investigation into the case, after it was closed a year and a half ago by then-attorney general Weinstein.

However, close associates of the state comptroller believe that the renewed investigation—if one is conducted at all—would be too late, as the time that has passed allowed for an opportunity to destroy evidence and coordinate stories. In such a situation, they said, it is doubtful it would be possible to get to the truth.

According to the state comptroller, there’s need for an investigation into two main issues that he believes raise suspicions of criminal activity.

The first is the discrepancy between the documentation from the travel agency Ayala Tours and those of the Israel Bonds organization with regards to the funding the latter provided to Netanyahu and those who accompanied him on travels.

The state comptroller suspects the trips were funded both by the Israel Bonds organization and by a third party. This discrepancy occurred in five of the six trips funded by the Israel Bonds organization.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and predecessor Yehuda Weinstein Photo Amit Shabi

The second issue is the ambiguity on the Netanyahu family’s use of state-accumulated frequent flier miles for their own private trips.

These suspicions are reminiscent of the “Rishon Tours Affairs” for which former prime minister Ehud Olmert was prosecuted.

The comptroller’s report, which will be published on Tuesday at 4pm, is expected to show that trips taken by Netanyahu, his wife, and his children, which were funded by outside sources during the aforementioned time, deviated from protocol. This, the comptroller argues, could create the appearance of a conflict of interests or of receiving illicit benefits.

Much like other ministers at the time, Netanyahu did not turn to the Knesset’s Gifts Committee or the State Comptroller’s Committee for Giving Permits to Ministers to see if there is need to examine whether the outside funding is considered an illicit benefit or a prohibited gift.

The report will detail the occasions in which the comptroller turned to former attorney general Weinstein and his replacement Mandelblit, asking them to open a criminal investigation into the Bibitours Affair, after the comptroller and his staff determined that the findings raise “suspicions of criminal activity.” So far, the answer the comptroller received from the Attorney General’s office was that the “issue was under examination.”

Senior legal officials called the state comptroller’s accusations at the Attorney General’s office “unprecedented.”

After Weinstein closed the initial criminal investigation, the comptroller once again sent the material he gathered to the Attorney General’s office, hoping Weinstein decides to launch a full-blown criminal investigation.

The comptroller is concerned that the delay in receiving a response from the Attorney General’s office on the issue is meant to create a situation in which the statute of limitations on the investigation material—10 years—expires, and so it will no longer be admissible in court.

The report published Tuesday will include a redacted version of the letter Shapira sent Weinstein in early December 2015. In the letter, which was classified as “sensitive, ” the comptroller asks the attorney general to give him an update on the handling of the investigation material. Shapira stresses the fact that he first asked Weinstein to look into Netanyahu’s travels as a finance minister and MK in December 2012.

Weinstein informed Shapira of his intention to close the case in September 2014, leading the comptroller to complete his report on the affair.

Senior officials in the comptroller’s office said that “there is only one way to examine the suspicion of criminal activity—a criminal investigation which includes questioning witnesses under caution and turning to the banks for evidence and data.”

The report will also deal with problematic payments made over personal expenses at the PMO and shortcomings in filing requests for ministers’ trips abroad and their approval in the government.

“The fact that employees at the Prime Minister’s Office are covering debts for the prime minister out of their own pockets was revealed in the prime minister’s residences affair as well, ” one official said. “It’s problematic, because it’s not clear where the money to pay these employees back comes from.”

In addition, some of the money was paid in cash—and its origins should be traced.

The PMO said in response: “There has been no fault and or double funding in Netanyahu’s trips. The attorney general has already examined the issue and reached the conclusion there is no reason to open an investigation based on the material he was provided with in 2013. We’re certain the same will apply to the material provided to him in 2015. For many years, Netanyahu and his wife have been placed under strict scrutiny and no fault is found—because there is no fault.”

By Tova Tzimuki, Yaron Drukman, Ynet News

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