Monday, August 31, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israeli authorities indicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges Sunday, the first criminal indictment ever filed against a current or past Israeli prime minister.

Mr. Olmert, who stepped down earlier this year over the corruption issue, is accused of illegally accepting funds from an American backer, double-billing for trips abroad and concealing funds from a government watchdog.

He faces charges that include fraud and breach of trust.

The charges filed in a Jerusalem court on Sunday first surfaced when Mr. Olmert was still prime minister, although Mr. Olmert reportedly committed the offenses while serving as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a Cabinet minister, before being elected prime minister in 2006.

Mr. Olmert, who denies any wrongdoing, issued a statement through a spokesman saying he was confident his name would be cleared. “Olmert is convinced that in court he will be able to prove his innocence once and for all,” the statement said.

The Justice Ministry refused to detail the length of a potential sentence, but Moshe Negbi, an Israeli legal expert, said the maximum sentence on the fraud charge alone was five years.

Any political comeback by Mr. Olmert would be highly unlikely unless he is cleared. “In the immediate future, it doesn’t seem possible, but it all depends on the court,” Mr. Negbi said.

Two former Cabinet ministers recently sentenced in separate corruption cases have received multiple-year prison sentences. Avraham Hirchson, a former finance minister and an Olmert confidant and appointee, was sentenced to five years for embezzlement in June, and another former Cabinet minister was sentenced to four years for taking bribes.

The case that did the most damage to Mr. Olmert when he was still in office involved funds he reportedly accepted from Moshe Talansky, an American businessman who is said to have funneled large amounts of money to Mr. Olmert in cash-stuffed envelopes. Mr. Talansky’s testimony last year helped turn public opinion against Mr. Olmert and played a large part in forcing him from office.

The indictment said Mr. Olmert used his connections to help Mr. Talansky’s business, but it did not charge Mr. Olmert with accepting bribes.

In another case, Mr. Olmert was charged with double-billing nonprofit organizations and the government for trips he took abroad and then using the extra money to pay for private trips for his family.

Mr. Olmert was replaced as prime minister in March by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. He left politics and is currently a private citizen.

The charges against Mr. Olmert were part of a slew of allegations that drove down Israeli confidence in the political system during his time in office.

In addition to the charges against Mr. Olmert’s finance minister, another Cabinet minister was convicted of sexual misconduct, and the country’s former ceremonial president, Moshe Katzav, was charged by several women with rape and sexual harassment and is currently on trial.

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