Israeli Police Uncover ‘One of Worst Corruption Cases Ever’


uri-messerThe Israel Police arrested five people this week – including attorney Uri Messer, former associate of ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert -as part of an investigation into what law enforcement sources have described as an unprecedented real estate bribery scam, in which land developers allegedly paid large bribes to public officials in order to gain approval for housing developments built by the Holyland real estate company in Yerushalayim and associated development projects in the North of Israel.A comprehensive media ban on the investigation was partially lifted by the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court today, allowing for some details of the affair to be publicized, though other details remain under wraps.

According to police suspicions, between 1999 and 2008, the Holyland company and associated land development projects, then owned by businessman Hillel Charni, paid tens of millions of shekels in bribes to senior public decision makers.

In one major alleged bribery scam, key members of the Yerushalayim municipality, including members of its planning and construction committee, received large sums in exchange for their approval for the Holyland housing project in the capital, situated in the city’s Malcha neighborhood.

Bribes allegedly bought approval for additional housing units to be constructed on the site, and eliminated bureaucratic obstacles which stood in the way of an enlarged Holyland development, which received final approval in 1999.

During a lengthy remand hearing for the suspects on Tuesday evening, Rishon Lezion Magistrate Judge Avraham Haiman described the affair as “one of the most severe instances of public corruption in Israel’s history, which will send shock waves throughout the country and which has caused irreversible damage to the public interest.”

Haiman described the Holyland towers as a “monstrosity.”

The investigation is being led by the police’s National Fraud Unit and the Lahav 433, and ended its undercover phase on Tuesday morning, when officers arrested Messer, Charni, and at least three additional suspects.

Police raided the Yerushalayim Municipality on Tuesday, though the search was reportedly coordinated with current Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat.

Officers also raided the offices of the Polar Investment company in Tel Aviv as part of the investigation on Tuesday. Polar is currently managed by Uri Shani, who once headed the office of ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Shani became manager in October 2009, several years after Polar Investments had built six 30-story residential towers in the Holyland site in Yerushalayim .

Police believe bribes were given by Charni in exchange for receiving approval for building the Tzuk Manara development project in the Galilee between 2003 and 2006. A third suspected bribery scam involves the Zera company, also owned by Charni.

Charni is suspected of bribing officials within the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Lands Authority, and the Investment Center of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor to get approval for his projects. Police say Charni made an enormous profit when he subsequently sold Holyland in 2008.

Messer is suspected of acting as an intermediary to transfer bribery funds for real estate projects. He allegedly transferred hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash to public officials to obtain their approval.

Real estate developer Meir Rabin, also arrested on Tuesday, was named as an intermediary in the alleged bribery ring. Police say he promoted Holyland projects and passed on tens of millions in bribery money to decision makers in the Yerushalayim municipality. Police suspect his role was central in the alleged bribery ring.

Uri Sheetrit, former chief Jerusalem Municipality engineer, was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion that he dropped his initial opposition to the Holyland project in Jerusalem and became a supporter after receiving very large bribes. Police say Sheetrit enabled Charni to save millions in bureaucracy, as well as enlarge the number of housing units that could be built on the site.

Sheetrit is also accused of attempting to cover his tracks by producing false receipts to account for the bribes, and of laundering the bribery cash he received. .

Eilyahu Hasson, an accountant for Holyland, is suspected of transferring bribery funds to officials and faking documents while attempting to hide evidence of his alleged involvement.

Judge Haiman extended the custody of four of the suspects until April 13, and extended the custody of Messer until April 11.

Shimon Golan, an attorney for Messer, said on Wednesday that his client had been questioned repeatedly over these suspicions over the past two years.

{The Jerusalem Post}

{Yair Israel}