JERUSALEM — Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was driven from office last year while facing mounting corruption charges, has been identified as a prime suspect in a separate bribery case, police said Thursday.
The 63-year-old Olmert returned to Israel from Europe early Thursday amid reports of his involvement in the case. Police suspect millions of dollars changed hands to promote several real estate projects, including a controversial residential development in Jerusalem that required a radical change in zoning laws.
A string of corruption cases have plagued current and former Israeli officials in recent years. A former finance minister, ceremonial president and other Cabinet ministers have been indicted or convicted on charges ranging from fraud to rape.
Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem at the time the residential development project was approved in the 1990s, has denied any wrongdoing.
Olmert said in a televised statement Thursday that the charges were "baseless rumors" and that he was the victim of "character assassination."
"I have never been offered bribes and I never accepted bribes from anybody in any regard and in any way, directly or indirectly," he said.
Police confirmed the former Israeli leader was a suspect after a court-issued gag order was eased. A string of media reports this week have implicated him obliquely in the affair.
Olmert has not been questioned by police in the affair yet, and no charges have been filed against him or any of the six people – including Olmert's successor as Jerusalem mayor – who have already been arrested in the case. Police had no word on when Olmert would be interrogated.
Police say the scope of the latest corruption affair dwarfs any of the other cases in which Olmert has been implicated.
The whiff of corruption has stubbornly clung to the former Israeli leader throughout his three decades in politics, quickly overshadowing his initial reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.
His political downfall began snowballing two years ago when Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky told an Israeli court how he handed Olmert envelopes stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
He was forced to announce his resignation in September 2008, after police accused him of double- and triple-billing Jewish organizations for trips abroad and pocketing the difference. He left politics after the February 2009 elections that installed Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
Olmert, who has maintained he is innocent of all charges, is currently standing trial in both cases, plus separate allegations of cronyism. All the charges predate his tenure as prime minister.