Philippines set to quit Marcos wealth chase

AFP, MANILA

Wed, Jan 02, 2013 - Page 5

The Philippines is to wind down a near-30-year hunt for the embezzled wealth of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, with more than half the supposed US$10 billion fortune still missing, the man in charge of the search said.

With Marcos’ widow and children back in positions of political power, and the government tightening its belt, the cost of the pursuit has become prohibitive, said Andres Bautista, head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government.

“It has become a law of diminishing returns at this point,” Bautista said in an interview at the commission’s offices, a now rundown building where Marcos’ oldest daughter, Imee, used to hold office.

“It’s been 26 years and people you are after are back in power. At some point, you just have to say, ‘We’ve done our best,’ and that’s that. It is really difficult. In order now to be able to get these monies back, you need to spend a lot,” he said.

Bautista, 48, left a high-paying corporate job two years ago to answer a call to help the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who promised to end corruption and uplift the lives of millions of poor Filipinos.

He and like-minded young lawyers who joined the agency soon found out that reforming the under-funded commission — itself prone to corruption — while at the same time going after powerful people, was no easy task.

Despite numerous criminal and civil cases being filed against them, none of the Marcos heirs or their cronies, who have been accused of plundering government coffers, have so far been successfully prosecuted, while high-powered lawyers have been used to tie up the judicial process for years on end.

Long-term chronic mishandling of the commission led to an unmanageable paper trail and evidence went missing that led to bitter losses in litigation, Bautista said.

“These accusations [against the commission officials] are not without basis. They were the ones in charge of guarding the chicken coop and some of them helped themselves to the eggs,” he said, refusing to name names.

The president’s late mother and democracy icon, Corazon Aquino, replaced Marcos after a bloodless people power revolt ended his 20-year regime in 1986 and sent him and his family into US exile.

She made it her first priority to create the commission, tasked with recovering all of Marcos’s wealth. Conservative estimates put the worth of assets and funds looted from government coffers at US$10 billion.

However, before she left office she allowed Marcos’s flamboyant widow, Imelda — known for her thousands of pairs of shoes — and their son and two daughters to return home.

And over the past two decades the Marcoses have regained and consolidated their political base.

Marcos’s son and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, is a senator who has hinted at contesting the presidency in the 2016 elections.

Imelda is expected to run for a second term in the Philippine House of Representatives in May, while her daughter Imee, governor of the family’s Ilocos Norte provincial bailiwick, is also widely thought to want a second term.

“There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the fabled wealth, and my sense is there is still much more out there,” Bautista said.

Since its creation, the agency has recovered 164 billion pesos (US$4 billion), some invested in prime New York real estate, jewelery, and about US$600 million stashed in secret numbered Swiss bank accounts.

The jewelery, including a 150 carat giant Burmese ruby and diamond tiara, is locked in a vault at the central bank, and at one point the international auction house Christie’s estimated it could fetch up to US$8.5 million.

More recently Bautista worked closely with the New York district attorney’s office to charge a former personal secretary of Imelda and two others over a conspiracy to sell a Monet painting that had been bought by the family.

Marcos, an astute art buyer, distributed the priceless collection of at least 300 artworks to cronies when his regime was about to crumble. Only half have been recovered so far and the rest are missing, Bautista said.

The official said he had recommended to Benigno Aquino that the commission wind down its operations, and transfer its work to the justice department.

If the president agrees he would have to get parliament to pass a law abolishing the agency.

“They [the Marcos family] have the resources to go head-to-head with us in respect to litigation. Why do you think forfeiture cases are still languishing 26 years after?” Bautista said.

The agency’s annual budget of less than 100 million pesos was only enough to pay its staff of about 200, many of them young lawyers who turned down high paying jobs elsewhere, he added.

“It’s a lonely job. It doesn’t win you any friends,” he said.