Key witness testifies in Olmert bribery case

A United States businessman at the centre of a bribery case against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert testified on Tuesday he gave the Israeli leader cash-stuffed envelopes but without expecting any favours in return.

“I never expected anything personally. I never had any personal benefits from this relationship whatsoever,” Morris Talansky told the Jerusalem District Court, according to an English-language pool report filed from the session.

Talansky (75) gave preliminary testimony, at the request of prosecutors, in a case that has raised questions about Olmert’s political survival at a time when he is talking peace with the Palestinians and pursuing indirect negotiations with Syria.

Both Olmert and Talansky, a New York-based fundraiser who broke down in tears during his court appearance, have denied any wrongdoing. Olmert has said he would resign if indicted.

Olmert, who was twice questioned by police in recent weeks, has said he took cash from Talansky for his two successful campaigns for mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and 1998, a failed bid to lead the right-wing Likud party in 1999 and a further internal Likud election in 2002.

A judicial source said the sums involved totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I gave [Olmert] cash in envelopes,” Talansky testified in English, estimating he provided the veteran politician with $150 000 in contributions and loans.

Legal experts have said investigators want to examine whether the money was reported to the proper authorities and if Olmert dispensed any favours in return for the cash.

Israeli election law broadly prohibits political donations of more than a few hundred dollars.

Asked if he received receipts for the money he said he gave Olmert—a question that touched off laughter in the courtroom—the white-haired Talansky replied that he had not.

He dismissively used the phrase “famous last words” to describe what he called Olmert’s unfulfilled promise to pay him back for a $15 000 loan.
Talansky said he loaned Olmert another $25 000 for a trip to Italy.

No checks

Talansky said he handed over sums, ranging from $5 000 to $15 000 at a time, in Israel or in hotel suites during visits Olmert made to New York before becoming prime minister, according to reports filed from inside the courtroom.

“I asked him why I couldn’t write a check and he said it’s because of the way the money is channelled. So I gave him cash, out of my own money. I would cash the [contribution] checks and give cash,” Talansky said.

Talansky, visiting family in Israel, had been ordered by the court to extend his stay and testify before returning to the United States. An Orthodox Jew, he said he regarded Olmert as a bridge-builder between secular and religious Jews.

“He was articulate. He was intelligent. I felt that he would be a leader that I would have hoped to be if I had the talent,” said Talansky, who also described Olmert’s penchant for expensive cigars, pens and watches.

State prosecutor Moshe Lador told reporters in the courthouse it was too early to determine whether an indictment would be sought against Olmert.

Eli Zohar, an attorney for Olmert, told reporters in the courthouse that the prime minister’s lawyers would have the opportunity to cross-examine Talansky.

Olmert has said that his ex-law partner was responsible for overseeing the funds received for his election campaigns. The attorney and Olmert’s former chief of staff have been questioned in the case. - Reuters

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