Source AP ©

Israeli police to question a prominent Australian billionaire

A team of Israeli police will leave for Australia next week to question a prominent billionaire about suspicions that Ehud Olmert tried to help him in a bank sale before becoming prime minister.

The case is one of several corruption investigation that have dogged Olmert's year in office. On Wednesday, Israel's government watchdog agency recommended opening a criminal investigation against the prime minister in a separate influence-peddling case.

Officers from the police fraud squad will question Frank Lowy in Australia, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The Associated Press. Lowy, a real estate developer and friend of Olmert's, was No. 172 on Forbes magazine's latest ranking of billionaires.

The investigation concerns Olmert's role as finance minister in the government's 2005 sale of a controlling interest in Bank Leumi, one of the country's largest financial institutions.

Police are investigating whether Olmert intervened unsuccessfully in the sale to help two wealthy associates, Lowy and American billionaire S. Daniel Abraham. Rosenfeld said there were currently no plans to question Abraham, No. 189 on the Forbes list.

The offices of Lowy's Westfield Group were closed late Thursday, and he could not immediately be reached for comment. Last week, his lawyers issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

"Mr. Lowy categorically rejects any suggestion that he or anyone acting on his behalf behaved improperly and is confident the inquiry will bear this out," said the statement, published in the Australian Jewish News.

Olmert is also facing several allegations involving past real estate deals. The state comptroller issued a lengthy report Wednesday charging that Olmert used his influence to steer a government grant to a colleague while he was trade minister in 2001. The agency recommended that the attorney general open a criminal case.

Olmert has not been charged with any crime and has denied wrongdoing in all the cases against him.

"We are frustrated by the way the prime minister has been marked as a target and is constantly been fired upon," Olmert's lawyer, Eli Zohar, told Channel 2 TV.

Olmert's popularity has plummeted since the country's war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer, which he is widely thought to have mishandled.

Another blow to Olmert could come Monday, when a government-appointed commission releases a report on the war. The report is expected to be critical of Olmert's wartime actions, and a disparaging assessment could put pressure on the prime minister to step down.

Several other officials from his centrist Kadima party have also faced scandal. Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon lost his job and was convicted of an indecent act for forcibly kissing a female soldier.

Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson is under investigation in an embezzlement case and has suspended himself from office, while Olmert's longtime office manager was placed under house arrest on suspicions she helped arrange government jobs in return for tax breaks.

In addition, prosecutors have said they plan to indict the country's largely ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, on rape and other serious offenses.