The government of President Ferdinand Marcos today arrested a former information minister-turned-critic on corruption charges. Opposition figures said it was a move aimed at deflecting allegations of massive transfers of money abroad by the Marcos family and political supporters.
Francisco S. Tatad, an information minister under Marcos in the 1970s and now a leading newspaper columnist and president of a small opposition party, was arrested at his home today and briefly detained before posting $1,277 bail. The charges were related to offenses allegedly committed as long as 12 years ago.
The complaints were filed with a government special prosecutor in 1980, shortly after Tatad left Marcos' Cabinet in a dispute over regional politics. There was no official explanation for the five-year delay in proceeding with indictments.
Tatad rejected the charges as false and said in a written statement: "This is character assassination of the worst kind. It is political persecution pure and simple. It is not I, but they whose enormous wealth at home and abroad cannot be explained who should be criminally prosecuted for graft and corruption, economic sabotage and other high crimes."
In an interview shortly before his arrest, Tatad said Marcos was trying to "create a smokescreen" to divert attention from charges that the Marcos family, top government officials and presidential friends have made huge investments in property in the United States, often through mysterious holding companies.
In a series of articles written by a team of reporters for The San Jose Mercury News and distributed by the Knight-Ridder News Service, Filipino political and business leaders were said to be "systematically draining vast amounts of wealth from their nation and hiding it overseas."
The series did not give details of specific illegal transactions but described a shady system in which Filipino investors used holding companies based in Hong Kong, the Caribbean and other places to transfer millions of dollars, possibly in violation of Philippine foreign exchange regulations.
The articles said the money was used to purchase real estate, office buildings, banks and businesses in the United States. The series also listed U.S. holdings traced to Marcos' wife, Imelda, government ministers and presidential cronies.
According to a lawsuit filed in March 1984 by Pablo E. Figueros, a former business partner of Imelda Marcos, she has invested heavily in New York real estate through agents and nominees, the series said.
In a statement here, the Marcoses denied owning any property in the United States.
The articles, coming at a time of major economic difficulties in the Philippines, caused an uproar among opposition politicians, who seized on the charges to renew demands for Marcos' resignation.
"Dollar salting," as the practice of transferring money abroad is known here, has long been a sore point. But it is particularly sensitive when a majority of Filipinos are living below the poverty level.
In response to the charges, Marcos last week ordered his justice minister, Estelito Mendoza, to investigate immediately the alleged overseas investments of "public officials and private individuals" and to "spare no one."
Marcos added, however, that the allegations were "apparently based on innuendoes, rumors and gossip."
Information Minister Gregorio Cendana indicated that the Marcoses would not be included in the investigation, since they had already denied having property abroad.
Opposition commentators predicted the investigation would lead nowhere, except possibly to cases against Marcos' opponents and opposition-leaning businessmen. They pointed out that, in any event, Marcos enjoys lifetime immunity from suits under legal provisions enacted when he ruled the country under martial law from 1972 to 1981.
"A whitewash and a farce cannot be avoided," Tatad said in his column published yesterday in the independent Manila daily, Business Day.
Tatad added that "the Marcos regime has lost the moral authority to govern" and that it "has become instead a major cause of the growth of the Communist-led insurgency" being waged in most Philippine provinces by the New People's Army guerrilla organization.
Tatad, who as Marcos' chief spokesman announced the declaration of martial law in 1972, last week called on the 67-year-old president to resign in the wake of U.S. investment charges.
On Friday, Tatad was indicted on five counts of corruption, alleging: failure to file financial disclosure statements for three years when he was in the Marcos Cabinet; receipt of a bribe in 1973 of 125,000 pesos ($6,944 at the present exchange rate) for a government contract, and transferal of ministry funds to a private company headed by his brother-in-law in 1975.