Businessman forged signature of bed-ridden Patriarch in fraudulent KKL-JNF real estate purchase.
Israeli woman meets the greek patriach 521 Photo: JIM FLETCHER
The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal for a reduced sentence and fine by a central player in the Greek Patriarchate Affair, one of the most scandalous and galling frauds pulled off in Israel’s history.
The decision was announced Sunday, though it was handed down on Friday.
The central appeal was filed by convicted Israeli businessman Benno Zussman against his five-and-a-half year sentence and over NIS 4 million in fines, for his part in a conspiracy and fabricated deal between Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and Jerusalem’s Greek Patriarchate.
The scandal culminated with Zussman and Yaakov Rabinovich, conspiring to forge the signature of an ailing and bed-ridden Greek patriarch to sign over valuable real estate in Jerusalem for a comparatively small sum.
The state had cross-appealed, asking for an even harsher sentence and higher fine, which was also rejected.
Another point of high drama in the case was Zussman’s fleeing to Romania, where he avoided prosecution until 2010, when, after extensive efforts, he was extradited to Israel.
The other parties in the affair, which dates back to April 2000, such as KKL-JNF and well-known lawyer Jacob Weinroth, were never found to have known about the conspiracy and were also considered to have been fooled, though they were key players in the fabricated transaction.
In September 2012, the Jerusalem District Court convicted Zussman of fraud and sentenced him to five-and-a-half years in prison, fined him NIS 4 million and ordered him to pay compensatory damages of NIS 250,000.
In his appeal, he asked the court to overturn his conviction for fraud, and asked the court for a lighter sentence and a lower fine should it uphold his conviction.
Zussman said that the lower court failed to properly consider the testimony of several of the other parties who were present at the time the transaction was finalized who all testified that the Patriarch was of sound mind.
He also said that the lower court ignored a recording he presented in which one of the Patriarch’s aids appears to confirm that Zussman genuinely paid significant funds to the Patriarch.
The state said that his fine was much lower and his prison sentence shorter than that of his co-conspirator, Rabinovich, convicted and sentenced years before while Zussman was still in Romania.
The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s findings of fact, stating that the witnesses that Zussman referred to were nearby, but never actually in the room with the Patriarch, reducing the value of their testimony. It added that the recording did not constitute proof when Zussman failed to produce documentary evidence in support of paying the Patriarch and when the Patriarch’s aid failed to testify on his behalf in court.
In convicting Zussman, the district court said the fraud was extraordinarily sophisticated and one in which the reality of what happened was hard to believe.
At an earlier stage when the Supreme Court stiffened Rabinovich’s prison sentence from four to six years, it called the plot one of the largest and most cunning real estate frauds in the state’s history.
Zussman had cultivated a close relationship with the Greek Patriarchate for years.
He exploited these ties to craft a vast real estate conspiracy to “buy” invaluable Greek Patriarchate lands in the capital’s Rehavia neighborhood, near the old Jerusalem bus station and in Beit Shemesh.
Zussman and Rabinovich convinced others that aging Patriarch Diodoros wished to “sell” many of the valuable lands for a paltry $20m., in exchange for a 999-year lease (which would automatically be renewed every 99 years).
KKL-JNF was thrilled about the deal as it had concerns that when its current lease on those lands from the Greek Patriarchate runs out, the Patriarchate would demand an inordinate sum for a new lease.
When Zussman, Rabinovich, Weinroth, a notary named Avraham Peri, a medical evaluator named Dr. Bruno Austfeld and KKL-JNF representative Mordecai Tenuri arrived to get the patriarch’s signature for the deal, Zussman and Rabinovich went into see the patriarch only with the notary, claiming he was too ill to see all those present.
Ultimately, Zussman and Rabinovich visited the patriarch (having told him beforehand it was a holiday visit) and convinced the notary to confirm the patriarch’s signature, telling him that the patriarch had already signed.
Austfeld was convinced to go along with confirming the procedure even though he did not examine the patriarch.
They then proceeded to pocket $16m. of the $20m. “purchase price,” which was supposed to go to the patriarch – one of the reasons the prosecution seeks a higher fine.
Diodoros was patriarch from 1981 until his death in 2000.