Witness says he paid Olmert

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM - A New York fundraiser and businessman testifying in a corruption investigation told an Israeli court yesterday that he gave $150,000, mostly in cash, to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

The businessman, Morris Talansky, 75, who is at the heart of the investigation involving Olmert, told the court that he believed the money was used for Olmert's political campaigns and also for his expenditures on hotels and first-class flights.

But Talansky said he never received anything in return for the cash and other money, such as payment of credit card bills.

"I only know that he loved expensive cigars," Talansky told the court. "I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange."

The prime minister is suspected of receiving illicit money from Talansky, funds that the Israeli news media say amount to nearly $500,000.

Olmert says the money went for legitimate financing of various election campaigns, and he denies ever having taken a bribe.

The investigation into Olmert has prompted calls for his resignation from the left, right and center in Israel, and it played prominently in the Israeli news media again yesterday. Olmert has been the subject of several prior inquiries and has proved himself to be a highly skilled political survivor. But this inquiry is widely viewed as the most serious he has faced.

In a report on the online edition of the Israeli daily Haaretz, the newspaper said it was still unclear "if Talansky's daylong testimony in the Jerusalem District Court had significantly helped prosecutors near proof of a 'smoking gun' of evidence of bribery against Olmert."

At the hearing, Talansky said he gave Olmert or his political aides the money beginning in 1992 - much in cash tucked in envelopes.

Talansky told the court that he turned over about $150,000 of his own money to Olmert, directly and through political aides, at meetings in New York and Jerusalem over a 15-year period.

He said much of the money was raised in New York "parlor meetings," where Olmert would address American donors who then would leave contributions on their chairs.

Throughout his eight-hour testimony, Talansky spoke of his love for Israel and his conviction that Olmert was the right man to lead the country. For that reason, he said, he "overlooked" nagging doubts about why Olmert insisted on receiving the money in cash.

Talking about the cash transfers, Talansky said he told himself that it was "absolutely, absolutely insanity." But he said he "sort of resolved my conscience" by calculating that his own personal outlays amounted to $10,000 to $15,000 a year. "Over a 15-year period, it didn't seem to be that astronomical a figure," he said.

Olmert has not been indicted in the case but has pledged to resign if charged.

Legal affairs analyst Moshe Negbi said Talansky's testimony suggests that Olmert could face charges of bribery and breach of trust. "I don't think that there were ever such grave suspicions against a prime minister in Israel," Negbi said.

Olmert's lawyer, Eli Zohar, labeled Talansky's testimony "twisted" and said the truth would be revealed in the cross-examination, set for July 17.

Olmert had no comment on the testimony.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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