Comptroller raises questions regarding PM's travel expenses
Funding of Netanyahu's travels abroad during between the years 2003-2005 comes under scrutiny again as state comptroller asks AG to reopen investigation; Netanyahu and wife Sara suspected of receiving outside funding for travel abroad in addition to gov't funding.
The comptroller argues that this may create the appearance of a conflict of interests or of receiving illicit benefits.
Additional investigative materials relating to Netanyahu's travels that raise the suspicions of criminal activity have been passed on to the attorney general - the only one who can order the opening of a criminal investigation. These materials therefore do not appear in the public report.
The "Bibitours Affair" first came to light five years ago in an investigative report by Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker. During his tenure as finance minister under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu traveled abroad 15 times. Seven of those flights were funded by the Finance Ministry and the rest were funded by outside sources. According the comptroller's report, 1.5 flights were funded by foreign governments, two flights were funded by Jewish organizations, and 3.5 flights were funded by Israel Bonds, an organization funded by the Israeli government.
The comptroller has already asked the attorney general to look into the suspicions six months ago, and is now accusing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and his predecessor Yehuda Weinstein of dragging their feet on the matter in an effort to "cover up" the affair.
"It's inappropriate that when a minister goes abroad on an official trip funded by the government, an outside party also pays for the trip," Shapira wrote in his report. “Furthermore, if a minister’s trip is funded by an outside source, it is not appropriate for his wife or children’s expenses to be funded by a third party, especially one that has no connection to the purpose of the trip.”
He stated that in all of the instances mentioned, much like other ministers at the time, Netanyahu did not turn to the Knesset's Gifts Committee or the State Comptroller's Committee for Giving Permits to Ministers to see if there is need to examine the legal ramifications of the outside funding, and whether it is considered an illicit benefit.
Shapira mentioned that Netanyahu’s spouse, Sara, accompanied him on most of his trips. “Some of her flights were funded by outside sources and in some cases the sources of funding for her and her husband were different. In another instance, Netanyahu’s son accompanied him on a trip and his expenses were funded by an outside source (as well).”
Israel Bonds pays the bills
The comptroller found that the Israel Bonds organization paid for Netanyahu’s hotel room during a private trip to the United States while he was serving as finance minister. Also, on an official government-funded trip to the UK, Israel Bonds paid for the Netanyahu couple's hotel room, and on two official trips in which Sara Netanyahu joined her husband, Israel Bonds funded her but not his expenses.
Netanyahu flew to the US, the UK, and France in one trip in June 2003. The cost of his flight was $6,992, while a businessman funded Sara Netanyahu’s flights, which cost $4,795.
In January 2004, Netanyahu flew to the UK with his wife, and Israel Bonds funded both of their expenses. Israel Bonds paid $7,469 for flights for Netanyahu, his wife, and third person. A few days later, Netanyahu and his wife flew to the United States, with Israel Bonds funding his flight and an unnamed source funding her flight.
On another flight to the United States and the UK in January 2004, Israel Bonds funded the couple's flights. A businessman paid for the London hotel room used by the couple and their son, at the cost £8,568. Israel Bonds and the businessman both funded Netanyahu's son's stay in London.
In March 2004, the Netanyahu couple traveled to the Netherlands. Sara’s flight cost $733 and was funded by a foreign organization. Three months later, according to the Channel 10 report, another foreign organization paid for half of the couple’s flights to the United States, which cost $11,860.
Netanyahu flew to the United States with his wife on October 1, 2004. Israel Bonds paid $13,747 in expenses for Netanyahu, his bureau chief, and a body guard. The organization also funded Netanyahu’s flight from the United States to the French Riviera and then back to Israel. The comptroller's
report states it's unclear who funded Sara Netanyahu’s flights in this instance. The couple stayed at the French Riviera for four days and three nights and the cost of their hotel room was €7,627 or €2,500 a night. For this expense, Netanyahu paid €3,494, while Israel Bonds covered the remaining €4,133.
An educational institution also funded the son’s flight to Belgium in 2005 and another organization, Friends of Likud in the United States covered the cost of fights to the United States three months later, according to Drucker. A month later, Israel Bonds funded Sara Netanyahu’s flights to the UK, and covered the cost of the couple's stay.
Director-general pays for private expenses
On a trip to the UK in July 2005, Yehiel Leiter, the director-general of the Finance Ministry at the time, used his own credit card to pay for different expenses relating to Netanyahu’s trip, including the flights of Netanyahu’s children to the UK, which cost $2,800.
Initially Leiter reported that he did not remember the incident and the payment and that “the matter surprised him because of the large sum.”
Leiter later changed his version of the story and in response to a draft of the report, explained that he used a credit card to pay for additional expenses of Netanyahu and his family’s trips abroad and that Netanyahu paid him back.
In a meeting with the comptroller and his staff in January 2016, Netanyahu noted that every time Leiter had to pay for anything, the amount was returned to him in cash.
The report also states that flights for Netanyahu's entourage were also funded by foreign sources, including other nations. In December 2003, the Romanian government funded the expenses of the then-finance minister while Israel Bonds covered the cost of body guards on three trips, and a foreign organization funded the expenses of an accompanying person and body guard, all of which cost a total of NIS 20,000.
Meanwhile, an educational institution in Belgium paid in March 2005 for car rental, board and lodging for the driver, and cellphone expenses.
Ball is in AG's court
The comptroller wrote that "Netanyahu did not consult the Finance Ministry's legal adviser before allowing Israel Bonds to fund his trips, despite the procedure for fundraising, which determines that the participation of ministers in fundraising events constitutes a sponsorship of the event. In light of that, and in light of the concern Netanyahu could be facing a conflict of interests, he should have consulted with his ministry's legal adviser before confirming his participation in the event organized by Israel Bonds."
From the findings, the comptroller wrote, “it appears that Mr. Netanyahu's trips abroad for work, and that of his family members, were funded by outside sources including institutions, businessmen, private individuals with different ties to the finance minister and the Israeli economy. This funding was done without legal considerations to the possibility of a conflict of interest."
In 2013, the comptroller sent documents related to Netanyahu’s travels abroad to the attorney general for further investigation. In September 2014, then-attorney general Weinstein determined he "did not find cause to launch an investigation into suspicions of criminal activities by Mr. Netanyahu," and as a result of that, he informed the state comptroller that he has finished his examination of the issue.
One of the reasons cited by the attorney general was that the prosecution believed that "there is no real chance that continuing examining this matter, or even a criminal investigation, would lead to findings that would allow the prosecution to bring this to trial, among other reasons because of the long time that has passed."
PMO: 'No conflict of interests'The Prime Minister's Office responded to the report, saying “After years of massive headlines and countless reports, it has become clear that the mountain turned out to be a mouse. There were no conflicts of interest, double funding, or anything illegal in Mr. Netanyahu’s travels. The attorney general has already investigated the documents that the comptroller sent him in 2013 and determined that there is no reason to open an investigation. We are convinced that this is what will happen with the annex that was sent to him in 2015.”
“The state comptroller has determined that Netanyahu acted exactly like other ministers. The procedures for ministers' travel were only set in 2008, while the report deals with a period of time ending in 2005. The attempt to retroactively impose the procedures on Netanyahu, and only Netanyahu, is unacceptable. The feeling is that there is a special set of laws for Netanyahu and another set of laws for everyone else.”
"Mrs. Netanyahu joined her husband’s trips as is customary for the wives of former prime ministers and sometimes of ministers as well. The outside bodies that invited Netanyahu are public bodies like Israel Bonds, a pro-Israel lobby in the UK, educational institutions, and others. These trips were important for Israel. During those trips, Mr. Netanyahu raised millions of shekels for the benefit of the state, was interviewed tens of times in the international media, and appeared in front of many public institutions for the purposes of Israel's public relations.
"In the many years that have passed, Netanyahu and his wife have been under vigorous scrutiny and but nothing has been found—because there is nothing to be found.”