Ex-Israeli PM Olmert cleared in corruption case

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In a Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 file photo, Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks during a conference at the Plaza hotel in Jerusalem. The long-awaited verdict in former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's corruption trial looks to be historic regardless of the outcome. If convicted, Olmert could become the first Israel premier sentenced to prison. If acquitted, it would mean he was forced out of office in vain. Olmert's verdict is expected to be announced on Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

Dan Balilty, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — An Israeli court cleared former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday of the central charges in a multi-case corruption trial that forced him from power, but convicted him of a lesser charge of breach of trust.

The verdict was seen as a major victory for Olmert, who stepped down as prime minister in 2009 to battle allegations that included accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from a supporter and pocketing the proceeds from a double-billing scam on overseas travel.

His conviction on the lesser charge of "breach of trust" made him the first Israeli prime minister ever convicted of a crime. Beating the main charges could significantly rehabilitate Olmert's public standing and shift the focus to questions on whether an overzealous prosecution unnecessarily hounded him from office.

Olmert's legal troubles are far from over, however. He will be sentenced in September and is currently standing trial in a separate real estate bribery case. For now at least, a return to politics for the 66-year-old Olmert appears unlikely.

Casually dressed in a blue button-down shirt, Olmert appeared calm and relieved as the verdict was delivered in the Jerusalem district court. As he left the courtroom, the former prime minister had a wide smile and kissed defense lawyers and advisers.

"There was no corruption. There was no taking of money. There was no use of money. There were no cash envelopes. There was nothing of what they tried to attribute to me," Olmert told reporters defiantly afterward, saying the lone conviction was merely a "procedural lapse" from which he would draw the necessary lessons.

The verdict, which capped a two-year trial, covered three separate allegations: illegally accepting funds from an American supporter, double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad and channeling state grants to companies linked to a close friend. He was acquitted in the first two cases and found guilty in the last.

The first case was the most dramatic, with Jewish American businessman Morris Talansky flown in to testify that he handed the former Israeli leader envelopes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, painting him as a high-living traveler fond of fancy hotels and first-class travel.

The second case of double-billing assured his resignation, with Olmert unable to withstand public pressure to step down as the corruption charges multiplied.

The court convicted a close Olmert aide, Shula Zaken, of fraud and breach of trust in that case, but said there was "reasonable doubt" that the prime minister knew what had happened. It noted that Zaken refused to testify in the case, making it difficult to convict Olmert.

In the third case, the court convicted Olmert of breach of trust for steering job appointments and contracts to clients of Uri Messer, a close associate, when he served as minister of industry and trade. The court called it a "harsh conflict of interests between his commitment to the public as a senior public servant and his personal commitment to advocate Messer."

The charges were filed after Olmert became prime minister in 2006, but stemmed from his time as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a Cabinet minister.

After he was indicted in 2008, he announced his resignation but remained prime minister until February 2009 elections that brought his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, into office.

The proceedings involved 152 court sessions over two years, producing 4,000 pages of testimony. The case first broke more than four years ago.

Olmert still faces many more months in court. Any thought of a political comeback would likely have to wait until the conclusion of his other trial, involving a bribery scandal surrounding a controversial Jerusalem real estate project.

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