Last week the parliamentary State Control Committee discussed the state comptroller's findings regarding the unclaimed property committee chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal.
The State Comptroller's report alleges that Tal helped allocate estates to Emunah, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Religious Party (NRP) and chaired by - his wife.
He also allegedly had a hand in allocations to other NPOs in which he served as chairman of as board member.
The fact that Tal took part in the decision-making process created an unacceptable conflict of interest, the Comptroller ruled.
At the Knesset committee's session, MK Ofer Hugi of the religious party Shas expressed surprise at the Comptroller's stand. To prove his point, Hugi said that accountants-general of various government ministries have a say in the transfer of moneys to NPOs in which their relatives are involved. So why pick on Justice Tal?
Hugi was supported by two NRP MKs. "There is nothing inherently wrong about a conflict of interest," Yigal Bibi said, and Shaul Yahalom kicked in with biblical proof: "Conflict of interest is not wrong in and of itself. The Torah says nothing about it."
Yes. But it is against the law.
The ban on participating in a decision that involves a conflict of interest is nothing new. The key ruling was handed down back in 1979 (in the case of the Likud Party in Petah Tikva v. The City Council of Petah Tikva), in which Aharon Barak (then Justice, now Chief Justice) stated:
"The rules of natural justice on the one hand and the rules of fiduciary duties on the other give rise to the rule that a civil servant must not be in a situation in which a conflict of interest may arise between his duties and any other interest that he may have...
"The scope of this rule covers first and foremost any conflict between the interests of the authority and those of the civil servant as an individual, be the latter personal or financial. Civil servants are, therefore, prohibited from sitting on tendering committees that discuss the case of a relative...This prohibition is not limited only to the civil servant's discretion while implementing his job; rather, the civil servant is prohibited from even being in a situation in which such conflict of interest may arise..."
How could former Justice Tal disregard such a fundamental rule of governance that he undoubtedly can recite by heart? His explanations did not satisfy the Comptroller, nor are they convincing to any reader. This eclipse he has sufferred is truly regrettable.
The fact that the MKs from the religious parties fail to see any fault in the allocation of public funds under a conflict of interest is just as alarming, perhaps even more so. Is this their general philosophy, or did their natural empathy with Tal as an observant Jew ruin their judgment?
Shaul Yahalom's reliance on the Torah, by way of elimination, is most infuriating of all. Does he also uphold the rule that "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing" (Deuteronomy 25:4) when it comes to the public coffers?