A House subcommittee voted yesterday to hold two New York men in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about their business relationship with Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
The 6-to-3 vote in a closed session on the Marcos' financial holdings in the United States quickly escalated into a public dispute over whether the hearings were being timed to affect the Philippines' presidential election scheduled for early February.
Rep. Gerald B. Solomon (R-N.Y.), a member of the subcommittee, said he voted against the contempt citation. He called the hearings "nothing but a witch hunt which are being conducted for the sole purpose of trying to bring down President Marcos."
Solomon said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee chairman, had discussed the hearings with opposition candidates Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel and recently had Laurel to his house for dinner to talk about the investigation.
Solarz said he had recently discussed the issue of the Marcos' wealth with Laurel but not the hearings. The subcommittee investigation began before the announcement of Philippine elections, Solarz said. Delaying the hearings until after the election could be viewed as "a cover-up of the alleged diversion of resources from the Philippines," he added.
The contempt citation vote came after subcommittee members rejected the claim by both New York men of attorney-client privilege, although only one is a lawyer, according to Solarz. The full House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote on the contempt citation today.
The subcommittee started closed hearings Wednesday in an effort to determine the validity of recent press accounts that the Marcoses have secretly spent millions of dollars to buy up land and buildings in the United States. The so-called "hidden wealth" issue has been a target of opposition politicians in the Philippines for years and led to the filing of an impeachment resolution last August.
The New York men cited for contempt yesterday, Ralph and Joseph Bernstein, who are brothers, were identified in the San Jose Mercury News as being among a handful of agents used by the Marcoses and other wealthy Filipinos to secretly purchase land in the United States. They were subpoenaed and appeared before the subcommitee Wednesday, sources said, but declined to answer questions about Imelda Marcos, including whether they had ever met her.
Their attorneys, former House minority leader John Rhodes and former Carter White House adviser Stuart E. Eizenstat, presented the subcommittee with a legal brief arguing why the attorney-client privilege should apply. But Steven R. Ross, general counsel to the clerk of the House, countered with a six-page opinion backing the subcommittee's right to file the contempt citation.
Joseph Bernstein, an attorney, said in a phone interview that he was instructed by his lawyers not to answer the subcommittee's questions because of concerns about disbarment and malpractice suits.
The subcommittee also heard testimony Wednesday from Ernest Hoffstaetter, a Long Island contractor who did more than $1 million in renovation work on an estate there that was visited several times by Imelda Marcos. In a phone interview yesterday, Hoffstaetter declined to comment on whether he thought the estate, called Lindenmere, belonged to Mrs. Marcos. But he said he was paid with personal checks from Imelda Marcos' personal secretary, Vilma Bautista.