Charges follow collapse of plea bargain. What does it spell for her husband?
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit charged the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, for fraud with aggravated circumstances and breach of public trust in the “Prepared Food Affair,” in an explosive development which shook the country on Thursday.
When Leah Rabin was about to be indicted in 1977, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from office due to his wife’s scandal.
The expectation is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not considering such a move, but the indictment damages him politically in an atmosphere in which The Jerusalem Post recently reported that he too is likely to face an indictment announcement in the coming months or in early 2019.
Though the Post had learned about two weeks ago that an indictment would likely be coming down soon, there were continuous efforts to reach a plea bargain right down to the end, which left things up in the air and created an ongoing drama.
Other media had also reported in recent months that the actual indictment could be filed shortly after the Passover holiday in May, but then Netanyahu’s defense lawyers approached Mandelblit with a dramatic offer.
They offered to return some of the funds Netanyahu is accused of obtaining fraudulently and to take public responsibility, as long as she would not be slapped with any kind of criminal record.
Ultimately, despite media reports that a deal might be near, the Post’s sources proved correct that no deal was reached, leading to an indictment.
The indictment was also delayed from May until now following Nir Hefetz, a former close adviser to the Netanyahu family, providing new evidence against Sara Netanyahu. Although Hefetz is primarily a state’s witness against the prime minister for Case 4000 the Bezeq-Walla! Affair, he also provided material against Sara.
A pre-indictment hearing in January, where Sara Netanyahu’s lawyers asked Mandelblit to reverse his preliminary decision in September 2017 to indict her, also had failed to sway him, though Mandelblit issued a statement at the time that he “had an open mind” to their arguments.
In the Prepared Food Affair, the prosecution alleges that from September 2010 until March 2013, Sara Netanyahu acted in coordination with then-Prime Minister’s Office deputy director-general Ezra Seidoff falsely claiming that the Prime Minister’s Residence did not employ a cook, even though it did during that time.
According to the allegations, the two made the false claim to circumvent and exploit regulations that stated, “in a case where a cook is not employed in the official residence, it is permitted to order prepared food as needed.” The two hoped to obtain state funding both for the cook at the residence and for prepared food orders. In this way, the two allegedly fraudulently obtained from the state NIS 359,000 in hundreds of prepared food orders.
Furthermore, in 15 instances, invoices to chefs who were brought in from outside were falsified in order to circumvent limits on how much could be paid toward outside-chefs. Seidoff directed the chefs, the house managers and Netanyahus’ secretaries to falsify the invoices in these 15 instances.
Charges against Netanyahu for these 15 instances were previously closed by Mandelblit as there was insufficient evidence to prove that she knew about Seidoff’s and the others’ actions.
The prosecution also indicted Seidoff on Thursday for the same offenses, while adding the offense of falsifying documents and with a total fraud amount of NIS 393,000.
Several other cases against Netanyahu were closed in September 2017, but one of them will also impact the indictment.
While Mandelbit closed the “Father Homecare Affair” case against Netanyahu due to the small amounts of money involved, evidentiary problems and the difficult emotional circumstances – it will impact the indictment.
In the affair, Netanyahu employed S and G for six days and five days respectively to care for her sick and now deceased father. While normally, her father had a different homecare arrangement, during those days that he was staying at the prime minister’s residence, his regular arrangement was unavailable.
Netanyahu paid S for taking care of her father. However, in addition, S was paid by the state for providing cleaning services. G functioned as a substitute for S when S was unavailable. G was paid by the state for cleaning services.
Mandelblit said that since Netanyahu had paid S, was unaware of extra payments to S and that all of the state payments to S and G were small, he would not indict her, but that Netanyahu’s pattern of problematic conduct in that case would serve as evidence in the Prepared Food Affair.
Responding to the charges, Netanyahu’s lawyer Yossi Cohen told the Post in January that Meni Naftali and other Prime Minister’s Residence managers like him, not Sara, are responsible for the food orders regarding which she is accused.
He said Netanyahu’s defenses regarding food orders made in 2010 and 2013, when Naftali was not at the Prime Minister’s Residence, were that those accusations related only to around NIS 134,000.
Naftali has already admitted to criminal wrongdoing in this area, so it is just a question of whether the court buys his story or Sara’s about her also being or not being involved. The 2011-2012 period in which he was house manager accounts for around NIS 225,000 of the charges.
Cohen further has said that number could be easily reduced to NIS 30,000-NIS 40,000, as many times when prepared food was ordered, the staff cook was sick, traveling or off for Shabbat.
Asked if he could prove this argument, Cohen said it is known that the cook was off work for these reasons, and that all he needs to do is raise doubt and force the state to prove that the cook was in fact working at the time. Since he said the state has no way to prove, for example, that the cook was working when around NIS 15,000 was charged for prepared food in January 2011, it cannot prove Netanyahu or anyone else improperly ordered prepared food.
Cohen said that if the charges only related to NIS 30,000-NIS 40,000 at most, they could be dropped as relating to an oversight or to a violation too small to be worth prosecuting.
Sources close to the case told the Post in September that though there was unanimity within the prosecution about indicting Mrs. Netanyahu in the Prepared Food Affair, there were differences of opinion within the prosecution about closing some of the other cases against her.
The Sara Netanyahu cases jumped into the headlines in February 2015 as part of a State Comptroller report and “Bottlegate” and other now closed cases becoming household names. It became a full criminal investigation starting in July 2015.