US millionaire admits giving cash to Israeli PM
Thursday, 29 May 2008

AFP, JERUSALEM - A US millionaire testifying in a corruption probe that could end Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's career said on Tuesday he gave him envelopes stuffed with cash to fund his political ambitions and perhaps his taste for high living.

Morris Talansky was giving evidence to a Jerusalem district court as part of a criminal investigation into claims that Olmert received tens of thousands of dollars in illegal funds in the years before he became prime minister in 2006.

The 75-year-old American Jewish financier said in sworn testimony that could later be used at a trial that he gave envelopes stuffed with cash to Olmert and his assistant over a period of 15 years.

"I gave some money to Olmert for his (election) campaigns in 1991 and 1992... He told me that he would prefer cash, and I gave him first some money from my private funds, then some money collected in the United States on his behalf," said Talansky, according to Israeli public radio.

"In 1998 also some money, generally about 3,000 to 8,000 dollars each time, was given, always in cash, because Olmert did not want cheques."

Talansky could not testify how the money was ultimately used but described Olmert as someone with a taste for first-class hotels and luxury items.

"I only know that he loved expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange," he said.

The 62-year-old Olmert, who has yet to be charged, has denied any wrongdoing but admitted receiving money from Talansky to help finance election campaigns in 1999 and 2003.

Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister before becoming premier in 2006 after his predecessor Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and fell into a coma, has been questioned twice by investigators.

He has faced mounting calls for his resignation but has said he will only go if he is indicted.

The premier is the subject of three more police inquiries into suspected corruption involving potential conflicts of interest, fraudulent property transactions and abuse of power in connection with political appointments.

An opinion poll published by the Yediot Aharonot last week found that only six percent of respondents have full confidence in Olmert and 51 percent have no confidence in him whatsoever.

And Palestinian officials have expressed fears that the affair could affect the Middle East peace process, particularly if early elections are called.

Talansky said that in New York he had raised about 100,000 dollars over 15 years for Olmert's campaigns. He also said he loaned Olmert money, which would put the total figure at around 150,000 dollars.

He said he got to know Olmert around the time of the 1991 Gulf War and admired the Israeli politician, but insisted he never received anything in return for his helping Olmert.

"I never expected anything personally, I never had any personal benefits from this relationship whatsover," Talansky said, according to pool reports from the courtroom.

Talansky's deposition was approved last week by Israel's high court even though the anti-fraud police investigation is still under way.

"At this stage it is a preliminary inquiry. The case could develop or it could be closed. There could be other choices," state prosecutor Moshe Lador told reporters. "I hope that after this testimony, we can make a good decision."

Lador has said Olmert at this stage is suspected of "fraud" and "abuse of confidence" and that testimony from Talansky could provide evidence for an eventual indictment.

Lawyers for Olmert and his assistant Shula Zaken are expected to cross-examine Talansky at a later date which has not yet been determined.

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