Marcos on verge of a deal to return the stolen millions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am

The last person Ricardo Abcede expected to get a dinner invitation from was Imelda Marcos. Mr Abcede is head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the Philippine government agency charged with recovering the plundered wealth of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his business cronies.

But last December, this unlikely pair met at her flat in Manila to discuss how to end a 20-year tug of war in the courts over billions of dollars of assets seized by the government from the Marcos family and its allies.

By the time the former first lady had the remains of the dinner - a fish dish from her home province of Samar - wrapped up for Mr Abcede to take away, exploratory talks for a compromise settlement had effectively been started.

'It's time for closure,' said Mr Abcede, who has headed the commission since last June. He is proposing that in return for a hunk of the family's wealth, criminal charges will be dropped.

Mr Abcede won't talk about how the fortune will be spilt, but some observers believe it will be about 70:30, with the main share going to the government.

There are 520 criminal cases against the family and the regime's cronies pending in the Sandiganbayan, the country's anti-graft court. But chasing the loot in the courts has proved a laborious and far from fruitful venture. After 20 years, not a single person identified with the regime has been convicted as a result of an investigation by the commission.

Mr Abcede's plan has run into a storm of criticism by those who argue that the beneficiaries of Marcos' 'kleptocracy' should be relentlessly pursued.

The Marcos camp claims the commission made the first move. 'As far as Mrs Marcos is concerned she hasn't stolen anything,' said Ding Diaz, her chief assistant.

The 'Iron Butterfly', now 77, occasionally flutters across the society pages of Philippine Tatler but is mostly out of the spotlight; her daughter Imee is a congresswoman and son Bongbong governor of Illocos Norte, the late strongman's home province.

Familiar faces from the regime continue to prosper. Marcos' closest business ally Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco heads San Miguel Corporation, one of Asia's biggest food groups. Mr Cojuangco fled with the Marcoses into exile, returning several years later to claw back his business empire. Others, such as Herminio Disini who allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes from a tainted nuclear power project, are still in exile. Mr Disini reportedly bought himself a noble title and lives in a castle outside Vienna.

Corazon Aquino, the figurehead in the 'people power' revolt that threw out Marcos, established the commission in her first executive order three days after being sworn in as president on February 25, 1986. Its mission: to recover the 'ill-gotten' wealth of the Marcoses and their business allies in the Philippines and overseas.

That term hardly does justice to the eyeball-glazing greed and corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos' two-decade reign in Camelot-on-the-Pasig, as the Malacanang presidential palace was whisperingly called during the martial law years.

A socialite who was part of the international jetset that the Marcoses patronised in the 1970s and 1980s reckoned that Mrs Marcos' jewellery collection was 'certainly better than most queens', according to Ricardo Manapat.

In his 1991 book Some are Smarter than Others, Manapat painstakingly documented their immense wealth in property, antiques, old masters, jewellery and corporate assets. Part of that jewellery collection was seized by the commission, which it plans to sell in a public auction.

But the jewellery, shoes and perfume bought by the gallon rather than the ounce pale beside Ferdinand Marcos' plunder of the Philippine economy, one of Asia's most prosperous when the couple moved into Malacanang in 1966.

Twenty years after the Marcoses fled to Hawaii, where the ailing dictator died in 1989, the extent of the family's wealth remains murky.

'I asked Mrs Marcos about the extent of her wealth over our dinner,' Mr Abcede said. 'She told me that it is enough to pay the national debt plus some more.'

The Philippine national debt is 3.9 trillion pesos, or US$75 billion at the current exchange rate - a truly staggering amount that would make her wealthier than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who is worth US$50 billion according to Forbes magazine.

'I put some weight on that figure,' Mr Abcede said. 'Mrs Marcos is always serious about two things: her wealth and her family. Still, I've been a lawyer for 30 years and am used to fantastical claims.' Earlier this year, Mr Abcede met with Mr Diaz, her chief assistant, and put that amount to him: 'He told me it was very possible.'

If she was merely sparring with Mr Abcede, it was in poor taste: the Philippines is still paying off a sizable chunk of Marcos-era debt. Every year, a third of the budget is lost servicing the national debt, money that could be spent on upgrading rickety infrastructure to attract more foreign investment and improving public services.

It's safe to assume that the Marcos wealth is in the billions. The assets involved in the 520 cases in the Sandiganbayan alone total 220 billion pesos (US$4.2 billion), although it's hard to separate many of these cases between Marcos and crony wealth because their allies would often front firms for them.

Mr Abcede hopes to persuade Mrs Marcos to hand over an inventory of the family's assets to check it against the commission's own list. Most of the Philippine wealth is known, but the commission wants to clear the fog on its offshore holdings.

As the regime began to flounder after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983, the Marcoses were believed to have gone into a frenzy of transferring their wealth out of the country.

'We would need to validate such a disclosure,' Mr Abcede said. 'I'm not imputing any ill motives to Mrs Marcos but we don't want to be tricked.'

A fortune was stashed in Switzerland and other financial centres with tight bank secrecy laws, laundered in dummy corporations, or blown on property and valuables. A paper trail pointing to tonnes of gold from the Philippine central bank being clandestinely shipped overseas on Marcos' orders continues to stoke speculation that the family's wealth may indeed be astronomical.

Not a bar of this gold has yet been found.

So far, the commission has recovered 80 billion pesos (US$1.6 billion) in assets from the Marcoses and others identified with the regime, including US$520 million from the couple's Swiss bank accounts after a long legal battle in Zurich.

Mr Abcede said that even after 20 years the commission, which has a staff of 200, still received new information on the extent of the Marcos' wealth from a variety of sources. 'Some are hoaxes and we can usually spot these, but other leads are worth pursuing.'

The recovered wealth is being ploughed into a government programme to distribute land to rural workers. Those opposing a compromise solution argue that the commission is selling out too cheaply and that it should fight on in the courts.

For its part, the government appears to be keeping an open mind. 'Whatever the commission is doing is preliminary and will have to be approved by the courts,' said Ignacio Bunye, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's spokesman.