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Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert indicted on corruption charges

Fraud and other allegations led Olmert to resign last year. Public disgust over official dishonesty has grown in Israel and brought investigations and harsh punishments.

August 31, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted Sunday in corruption scandals that drove him to resign last year, a long-awaited legal step that made him the first current or former holder of the country's most powerful office to be charged with a criminal offense.

The decision by Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz will give Israelis a single judicial airing of three cases against Olmert that, along with other scandals involving senior government officials, have undermined public confidence in the country's politicians in recent years.

Olmert, 63, is accused of taking illegal cash payments from a wealthy political supporter, double-billing for trips abroad, and steering government grants to clients of a close friend and former law partner. The allegations cover a 13-year period when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry, but they surfaced after he became prime minister in 2006 and weighed heavily on his capacity to lead. He has since left politics.

The 61-page indictment filed in a Jerusalem court charges him with fraud, breach of trust, falsification of corporate records, receipt of illicit benefits and tax evasion. A conviction of fraud alone could mean five years in prison.

Olmert, who led Israel as head of the centrist Kadima party, has long insisted he is the innocent target of biased prosecutors. His spokesman said Sunday that a trial would vindicate him.

"After bringing down an incumbent prime minister, neither the attorney general nor the state prosecutor had any other option but to serve this indictment," said the spokesman, Amir Dan. "The court is free of these considerations, and we are convinced that Ehud Olmert will prove his innocence."

Many legal experts questioned that assumption. Emanuel Gross, a professor of criminal law at Haifa University, said that "there is a basis for assuming the prosecution did its homework and, after many months of investigation, would not have taken the risk of indicting a former prime minister without being convinced it had solid evidence."

Israel's television announcers treated Olmert's indictment as an anticlimax, placing it on the evening news lineup behind a tycoon's financial troubles, the latest swine flu deaths and negotiations to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Israelis have become accustomed to shenanigans in high places, and Olmert's downfall was last year's drama.

In the most damaging case against the prime minister, Morris Talansky, a Jewish American businessman and political supporter, testified last summer that he had funneled tens of thousands of dollars to Olmert in cash-stuffed envelopes over the years to help him in four election campaigns.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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