As the storied financial documents of Ferdinand Marcos became public this week, drawing headlines around the world, investigators here and in the Philippines grappled with a nettlesome legal challenge: How to turn these startling documentary details into the stuff of court victories.
In Washington, administration officials said the Justice Department is conducting a wide-ranging criminal investigation into possible bribery and other corruption, based in part on suspect bank accounts and corporations listed in the Marcos documents as sources of his wealth.
Jovito Salonga, head of a Philippine commission seeking to recover the Marcos wealth, met with attorneys from the Justice Department criminal division, and promised to assist in U.S. investigations arising from Marcos' records and documents, officials said.
The adminstration also may file lawsuits, according to officials, to recoup U.S. foreign aid allegedly diverted by the Marcos government for personal gain. And the government of Corazon Aquino is seeking to seize hundreds of millions of dollars of prime real estate around the United States, allegedly controlled by the Marcos family, as "ill-gotten" wealth.
But attorneys involved in all of these cases emphasized that the documents, despite the shock value of multimillion-dollar payments by foreign corporations to Marcos' closest associates, are only a small piece of a huge legal puzzle that must be assembled before these various court battles can succeed.
"These are paper trail cases, and very rarely do documents speak entirely for themselves," an administration official said. "If you can't establish the trail, you may very well lose the whole case unless you can get direct testimony from someone saying yes, money was diverted, or yes, I did it."
Also yesterday, the search for a future home for Marcos ran into further snags. Early in the day, White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he believed "there's still a possibility" the Panamanian government would agree to accept Marcos.
But Panamanian officials demanded first that the Philippine government officially request that they take Marcos, according to U.S. officials, and leaders in Manila responded by vowing to break relations with Panama if Marcos were allowed to move there.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said discussions were continuing with "several countries" where Marcos had expressed an interest in going. Marcos is known to be growing anxious to leave the United States as the legal cases against him mount.
In a boon for the Manila government yesterday, the Swiss Banking Commission told Swiss commerical banks that any funds linked to Marcos could be confiscated if Philippine authorities asked the Swiss for legal help. The unusual public statement by the commission urged banks to carefully handle any requests from the Marcos family regarding the transfer of funds into and out of Switzerland. Documents brought to the United States indicate that the Marcos family has tens of millions of dollars in Swiss banks.
Meanwhile, in Honolulu, the Justice Department said in a court hearing that it could not return the documents confiscated from Marcos last month because the records are in the custody of a federal grand jury, which sources identified as an Alexandria, Va., panel investigating fraud and kickbacks in Pengaton-financed contracts.
The disclosure late yesterday came as U.S. District Court Judge Harold M. Fong, who had earlier issued a temporary restraining order governing the documents' release, heard arguments from lawyers for Marcos and Justice attorney R. John Seibert.
Seibert told Fong he couldn't surrender the papers if ordered "because all of them have been turned over pursuant to a subpoena of a federal grand jury."
Fong's restraining order prohibited Customs Commissioner William von Raab and all "those acting in concert" with him from providing copies of the Marcos papers to congressional or Philippine investigators without a subpoena or through some other lawful process. Yesterday, Marcos' lawyers sought to have von Raab held in contempt, but Fong denied the contempt motion.
However, against Justice Department wishes, Fong granted Marcos' lawyers a preliminary injunction extending the restraining order indefinitely. Marcos' lawyers said the deposed president seeks the return of "purely personal" documents, such as birth certificates, medical records and religious items, before he leaves Hawaii.
At the hearing, Seibert revealed that the government has custody of $7 million worth of jewelry, currency and other negotiable instruments that Marcos brought with him to Hawaii on Feb. 26.
This week, Salonga expressed confidence that he can prove his case, using testimony from newly cooperative Marcos associates in Manila to flesh out documentary evidence emerging here and in the Philippines.
But his aides emphasized that the process could last years: First they must prove in Philippine courts that Marcos' wealth was stolen; then they must prove that assets around the world in the names of alleged "fronts" actually belong to him; and finally they must persuade courts in each of those countries to turn the assets over to the new Philippine government.
The legal hurdles in this scenario were evident in a federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, as attorneys for Marcos-related companies fought Salonga's efforts to seize five prime New York properties worth $350 million and allegedly owned by Marcos.
Salonga said in a deposition that the New York properties should be frozen because Marcos bought them with money amassed illegally. But when lawyers for Marcos' alleged representatives asked how he could prove this, Salonga responded in a raised voice: "This was a matter of intimate knowledge of everyone in the Philippines."
The opposing lawyers argued that Salonga's assertions were too vague to stand up in court. They also questioned the handling of the evidence: Some was retrieved from Malacanang Palace and some from piles of papers strewn about the streets of Manila, raising possible problems about identifying them as evidence in court cases.
"I would think the shortest time one could imagine getting to trial would be six months and that's optimistic. After that, the question becomes: How high is up?" said Jay Westbrook, an Aquino government lawyer in a Texas real estate case. "These are very exotic cases."