Knesset Bill Would Require Officials Silent Under Inquiry to Step Aside

The Knesset approved, over government objections Wednesday, a private member’s bill that would require a public official who exercises his right of silence under police investigation to relinquish his office pending completion of the investigation.

The measure, which passed its first reading and must pass two more before becoming law, was introduced by Laborite David Libai, chairman of the Knesset’s State Control Committee.

It was clearly aimed chiefly at Interior Minister Arye Deri, who has been under police investigation for the better part of a year for alleged financial improprieties.

Its reading in the Knesset coincided with the release of a report by State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat which not only excoriated the practices of which Deri has been accused but charged Deri with mishandling huge sums of government funds.

The comptroller and the interior minister crossed verbal swords at a hearing before Libai’s panel Wednesday. Deri said he accepted the report and vowed to implement its recommendations.

Ben-Porat, a former member of the High Court of Justice, openly doubted his sincerity.

Her report charged that the Interior Ministry handed out some $38 million in government funds to religious institutions, mainly those affiliated with Deri’s political base, the Shas party.

According to the comptroller, those monies were disbursed without following proper legal procedure. In some cases, Deri’s purpose was to win votes for his movement, the report alleged, noting that significant funds were transferred around election time.

Ben-Porat said she made her findings available to the police.

Deri accused the police of deliberately leaking material intended to discredit him in public opinion and timing it to coincide with the comptroller’s report.

He insisted he accepts the report in principle and said he has appointed a high-level independent committee to see to its implementation within three months.

The system Ben-Porat criticized allows the Interior Ministry to funnel public funds to favored institutions through local authorities, who depend on the ministry for their subsidies.

Deri, who says he would submit to questioning by senior police officials, told the Knesset members he believed it was his task to “correct years of discrimination” against haredi institutions and Sephardic-haredi ones in particular.

Haredi is the term used to describe the most strictly Orthodox communities. Shas is a haredi party with a mainly Sephardic constituency.

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