Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, have invested at least $250 million in New York real estate as part of a multibillion-dollar export of capital by the Philippine ruling elite, according to charges aired yesterday before a House subcommittee.
In an interview last week, investigators also said some of the New York properties in question were put up for sale last year, perhaps aspart of an alleged effort to repatriate "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the Philippines in time for the presidential elections Feb. 7. The reported U.S. holdings of the Marcoses have become a major issue in the Philippine campaign, in which Marcos, 68, is seeking reelection for the fourth time in 20 years.
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, said his probe would make public "irrefutable evidence" over the next two weeks of a "real estate buying spree" by Marcos and his associates that, while not necessarily illegal under U.S. law, raises the question of whether continued U.S. aid to the Philippines is justified.
"The corrupt practices [Marcos] has engaged in and encouraged have made him one of the world's richest men while impoverishing millions of people in his country," Solarz said. "The people whose tax dollars are being sent to the Philippines have an unmistakable interest in this investigation."
Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.) complained that witnesses' testimony yesterday consisted of "a few mudballs to throw around" and contained "not one iota of proof." He said the probe "wouldn't stand up anywhere but in a kangaroo court" and had been launched in an effort to influence the Philippine election.
Allegations of massive real estate purchases in California, New York and Nevada by the Marcos family and their friends, long rumored in the Philippines, were first outlined in detail by the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury-News in June.
Sources in the U.S. intelligence community estimated that the properties under investigation so far are worth about $600 million, but Philippine opposition leaders have charged that the Marcoses and their associates have moved $3 billion to $6 billion out of the country since 1979, more than the total amount of U.S. aid to the Philippines since the end of World War II.
Marcos has repeatedly denied that he or his wife owns any U.S. properties, and he has highlighted his campaign speeches with emotional challenges to his opponents to produce their evidence. Investigators have said all the suspect transactions have been made through layers of attorneys, agents, offshore banks and dummy corporations.
"It's possible there will never be a single piece of paper with Marcos' name on it," one investigator said.
The committee probe has focused on five properties in New York: a $20 million estate on Long Island called Lindenmere and four Manhattan buildings purchased over the last five years for a total of more than $200 million: the Crown Building at 730 5th Ave.; the Herald Center shopping mall at 34th St. and Avenue of the Americas; an office building at 200 Madison Ave., and 40 Wall St., one of the largest office buildings in New York's financial district. Solarz said yesterday the properties have increased in value to about $350 million.
Solarz's key witness yesterday was John Cronin, an investigator assigned to the subcommittee probe by the General Accounting Office. Cronin said Suffolk County, N.Y., records showed that $60,000 of the $110,000 in taxes paid since 1982 on the 14-acre Lindenmere property were paid by Vilma Bautista, whom he identified as the first secretary at the Philippine mission to the United Nations.
Another $15,000 was paid by her sister, Leonora Hernandez, and the rest by two firms, Ancor Holding Co. and Luna 7 Corp., Cronin said the records show. Solarz said both firms, headquartered outside the United States, are linked to the Marcoses.
Solarz said Bautista was also Imelda Marcos' secretary in New York. He added that she has diplomatic immunity and cannot be called before the committee.
Other newspaper reports have found Bautista listed as purchasing agent in 1976 and 1977 for four Manhattan apartments worth nearly $1 million, for a fifth apartment she resold last February for $1.1 million, and for a sixth one she bought with her sister for $335,000 in April 1984.
A report in The Village Voice in October said Bautista was listed as "authorized agent" for United Motors, a Philippine corporation. The Mercury-News said United Motors was owned by Antonio Floriendo, who, in turn, is one of three agents for Luna 7, one of the listed owners of the Lindenmere property.
Such circular ownership patterns are common in the tangled paper trail the committee is probing, investigators said. Other witnesses yesterday focused on circumstances surrounding two law suits filed last spring by Philippine architect Augusto M. Camacho and Dr. Pablo Figueroa charging that Imelda Marcos had swindled them out of their investments in Lindenmere.
The particulars of the two suits were cited in an August impeachment resolution filed against Marcos in the Philippines by 56 opposition members of the National Assembly. The resolution was killed in committee by members of Marcos' party. He often cites failure of the resolution as proof that his critics have no evidence against him.
Camacho wrote Imelda Marcos a series of letters between May 1983 and July 1984 demanding payment for work he said he had done on the Lindenmere estate, none of which was answered, Cronin said. Camacho settled out of court in September for $875,000 from the Ancor Holding Co. Imelda Marcos' attorney, Irwin J. Robinson, told the committee that Camacho was owed the money for "goods and services" he had rendered and it was not as part of the ownership suit.
Figueroa also settled out of court for $20,000 in attorneys' fees, receiving nothing himself, according to his attorney, Paul Edelman. Edelman, in testimony yesterday, said Figueroa had told him Imelda Marcos "put up all or most of the money" for the Lindenmere purchase through the Luna 7 group.
Figueroa sued "when Imelda changed her mind" and decided to make the estate "her personal weekend residence" instead of a luxury condominium development, according to another witness, Figueroa's family attorney, Romeo Capulong. But Figueroa decided to settle because "he feared for the life of his son in the Philippines," Capulong told the committee.
Investigators said the four Manhattan properties were put up for sale last summer after the Mercury-News articles appeared, and that there had been "serious negotiations" with prospective purchasers but no sales.
Intelligence community and Filipino sources speculated that the sales effort may be linked to a recent reversal of the flow of capital out of the Philippines. A congressional official said "hundreds of millions of dollars" had reportedly returned to the Philippines since last fall, when Marcos announced the election.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has asked the General Accounting Office to probe the accounting methods used for U.S. aid to the Philippines to determine if any of the aid has been diverted.