Israel Police is investigating senior officers on suspicion of accepting bribes from an influential Israeli rabbi, in a scandal involving the police, a former cabinet minister and even the FBI. The details of the investigation were released Thursday, after a sweeping gag order on the affair was lifted.
The case includes claims that the wife of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto handed a suitcase containing hundreds of thousands of shekels to the wife of senior Israel Police Brigadier General Ephraim Bracha, in return for information regarding an investigation into an association with which Pinto was involved.
Pinto is one of Israel’s most influential rabbis, acting as a spiritual adviser to numerous politicians and tycoons, and heads many education and welfare organizations.
Bracha, then head of investigations and currently the head of the national unit for fraud investigation, informed his superiors of the delivery over of the suitcase, noting that it was a bribe. The rabbi, however, insisted that he was only supporting Bracha, who had been in need of help.
Bracha's complaint prompted police to summon Pinto and draft an indictment, but proceedings were suspended due to new information.
In Wednesday's issue of a newsletter the rabbi releases periodically to his supporters, he wrote: "I will reveal my emotions before you. Dear brothers, this dark time forced upon us haunts us without us having committed any crime, and only due to narrow-minded and cruel considerations of those who use scare tactics."
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The only senior police officer whose name is actually mentioned in a statement issued by the Justice Ministry regarding the investigation is Commander Menashe Arviv.
The Israel Police department of internal affairs stated that, "a probe was recently launched regarding officer Menashe Arviv, following information handed several weeks ago to the attorney general and the state prosecutor, attributing bribery felonies to sources affiliated with Rabbi Pinto. At this stage, Arviv has yet to be questioned."
The Justice Ministry also stressed that, "in investigating Rabbi Pinto, there is no basis for suspicion of criminal misconduct by Ephraim Bracha, and that remains to be true."
After meeting with Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, Arviv also denied any wrongdoing, claiming that he is being unjustly accused.
"This is a false accusation and damaging to my reputation," Arviv said. "I believe that the investigation will be carried out quickly and effectively, and that at its conclusion my good name will be restored."
Following the publication of the investigation, Arviv decided to suspend himself until conclusion of legal proceedings. Danino himself has called for caution in condemning Arviv.
"It would be wise to let the authorities do their utmost before sentencing a man," the police chief said. "As we have proven in the past, the police do not compromise on values and principles, but we must keep in mind that this is an early stage of the investigation, and the police officer is entitled to the presumption of innocence."
Some of the new information that changed the nature of the probe suggested that Arviv had received bribes from Pinto when the former was working in the US. Arviv denied the allegations, insisting that none of the actions attributed to him had taken place, and that it was "the gossip of narrow-minded individuals."
The affair came to light due to an FBI wiretap agreed to by Pinto as part of a settlement with the bureau, after a blackmail complaint filed by Pinto forced the rabbi to testify against Michael Grimm, a New York Republican Congressman and a former FBI agent.
Grimm was under investigation by the FBI for illegal donations to his 2010 election campaign. Some of the donations reportedly came from sources affiliated with Rabbi Pinto.
Pinto's agreement with the FBI required the rabbi's phone to be wiretapped, and for him to divulge any information regarding financial transactions associated with his Hazon Yeshaya non-profit organization.
Pinto says the FBI was informed of the suitcase with money that was given to Bracha, as part of the bureau's surveillance. Further investigation apparently yielded information regarding other senior Israeli police officers who had visited the rabbi and received benefits from him.
According to Pinto's associates, one of the FBI's recordings has led to a religious figure closely affiliated to several police officials, who had approached Pinto himself, offering to "dissolve" the investigation against him in exchange for money.
In the last 24 hours, an FBI representative landed in Israel together with recordings, documents, copies of emails, and other materials that allegedly confirm the claims of Rabbi Pinto in regards to his link to the senior police officers.
However, it appears that the FBI is furious with the Israeli police, insisting there are officers who compromised the investigation against Grimm by tarnishing Pinto. It is at this stage that a former senior Israeli cabinet minister becomes involved, who Pinto claims was one of those who asked the rabbi to "lay off" his testimony against Grimm. It is unclear to what extent the investigators will focus on this claim, but sources familiar with Pinto's businesses dealings have stated in the past that, "If this can of worms is opened, many Israeli officials will be embarrassed by the results."
The entire sequence of events has been under a gag order in recent weeks, which was lifted by Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on Thursday morning upon the request of Ynet and other media outlets. On Wednesday, it was announced that the case is to be discussed by a Knesset subcommittee that oversees the Israel Police. Senior police officers are expected to be summoned, including, according to reports, Danino himself.
The Israel Police issued a statement Wednesday urging media to avoid from insinuating that police officials had been involved any criminal misconduct, warning "vague publications maneuvering the limitation of gag orders produce unrealistic generalizations."
"The Israeli police comprises some 30,000 policemen and women who are devoted, determined and loyal in serving the public.
"Israel Police would like to clarify to the public that no specific incident, as we have proven in the past, can tarnish an entire organization… It would be best if authorities could issue statements when the time comes, and avoid unnecessary rumor-mongering."
Eli Senyor contributed to this report