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Olmert indicted in graft case

Charges against Israel's ex-premier include taking money from U.S. backer.

By Josef Federman
Associated Press

JERUSALEM The charges likely end the three-decade career of a man who just three years ago seemed poised to lead his nation to a bold withdrawal from the West Bank and an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians.

Olmert, who was forced to step down because of the case, was accused of illegally accepting funds from an American backer, double-billing for official trips abroad and pocketing the difference, concealing funds from a government watchdog and cronyism.

All of the alleged crimes took place before Olmert was elected prime minister in 2006.

Olmert, 63, issued a statement professing his innocence. “Olmert is convinced that in court he will be able to prove his innocence once and for all,” said a spokesman, Amir Dan.

The formal charges in the indictment include fraud and breach of trust.

The Justice Ministry did not say when the trial would begin or what penalties Olmert could face. But Moshe Negbi, a leading legal commentator, said the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.

A rumored political comeback would be highly unlikely unless he is cleared.

“In the immediate future it doesn't seem possible, but it all depends on the court,” Negbi said.

Olmert, a lawyer by training, has repeatedly been linked to corruption scandals throughout a three-decade career that included a lengthy stint as Jerusalem mayor and a series of senior Cabinet posts. But until Sunday, he had never been charged. He is the first prime minister, sitting or retired, to be charged with a crime.

The most damaging allegations against Olmert accused him of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from an American businessman during trips abroad.

The businessman, Moshe Talansky, testified last year that he delivered the cash in envelopes and painted Olmert as a greedy politician who enjoyed first-class travel, fancy hotels and expensive cigars. The testimony helped turn public opinion against Olmert and played a large part in forcing him from office.

The indictment said Olmert used his connections to help Talansky's business, but did not charge Olmert with accepting bribes.

In another case, Olmert was charged with double-billing nonprofit organizations and the government for trips he took abroad and then using the extra money to pay for private trips for his family.

Olmert became prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke. He subsequently led their newly formed Kadima Party to victory in a parliamentary election.

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