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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 26, 2009
Marcos family re-stakes its claims
By Al Labita

MANILA - They were hounded for alleged ill-gotten wealth, but after over two decades, the late president Ferdinand Marcos' heirs are now fighting back, buoyed by resurgent political clout. With top government connections, they have begun taking steps to regain the assets and possessions seized from them following a civilian-backed military revolt in 1986 that toppled the 20-year reign of the now late strongman.

The heirs, led by former first lady Imelda Marcos, feel they can now pull strings given the years spent trying to resuscitate their political and economic fortunes drained by their own undoing while still in power. Political analysts believe they are banking on political debts many elected officials owe them after winning in local and national elections through the help of the Kilusang

 

Bagong Lipunan (KBL), the still-active political party of the late president.

Rumors swirled that KBL, mainly funded by the Marcoses, also helped bankroll the elections of candidates it favored. The KBL, which has kept the Marcoses in the political limelight since their 1986 fall from grace, remains intact and forms part of the "rainbow coalition" of parties backing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration.

Irene, the youngest daughter, is married to businessman Greggy Araneta, a cousin of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, president Arroyo's husband. In the Philippines, blood ties often translate into power and influence. Meanwhile, the Marcoses have re-emerged strongly on the political stage, led by Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, the late president's only son who serves as an elected congressman from the family's home province of Ilocos Norte.

He has emerged as a strong pro-Arroyo congressional ally, most recently drawing applause from fellow House of Representative legislators for his privilege speech in support of Arroyo's proposed 300 billion peso (US$6.2 billion) economic stimulus package. Burnishing his populist credentials, he called for massive public works spending to bridge the "infrastructure gap" between Metro Manila and the countryside and warned against subordinating the interests of poorer regions to the demands of "imperial Manila" and the bigger cities.

In the 2010 national elections, Ferdinand Jr is known to be eyeing a run for the Senate, where opposition to Arroyo's administration has been strongest. His sister Imee will also vie for the congressional slot she previously held, and Imelda has indicated she may run for mayor of Manila, the Philippine national capital.

Some analysts believe that the family's restored political clout and family ties to Arroyo have emboldened their efforts to regain the assets then-president Corazon Aquino ordered sequestered in 1986 on suspicion they were "ill-gotten". In what appears a role reversal, it's the Marcoses' turn to run after officials of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), the agency charged with recovering the alleged US$10 billion looted by the late dictator.

Imelda, whose lavish lifestyle was widely viewed as contributing to her husband's downfall, sued PCGG officials last January 24 for graft and estafa (fraud). Her complaint, filed with the Ombudsman, is centered on the PCGG's takeover since 1986 allegedly without proper accounting of 2 billion pesos (US$42.6 million) worth of family-owned assets.

Rich holdings
The disputed properties covered a total of 197 certificates of title over several parcels of land with a total area of 17,405,984 square meters located in Ortigas Boulevard and Pasig city in Metro Manila, Baguio city and lands in the provinces of Laguna and Cavite, including a seafront property with an area of 120-hectares located in Mariveles, Bataan.

Imelda also argued that the PCGG's takeover was illegal because it was done without judicial processes, and was tantamount to the misappropriation of the family's property rights. PCGG officials, however, say the assets were not confiscated but rather "surrendered" to them by a self-confessed Marcos crony, businessman Jose Campos, in exchange for immunity from civil and criminal suits. Campos had admitted that he acted as a front for the Marcoses in acquiring the properties.

Meanwhile, Irene requested last January 22 that the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan order the Department of Tourism (DOT), a government agency, to vacate the family's former sprawling mansion in Canlubang, Laguna, south of Manila. She argued the PCGG seized the property and transferred it to the DOT despite the fact it was not part of the government's original sequestration list and that she, Imee and Ferdinand Jr are the mansion's legally registered owners.

The Marcoses have also apparently been encouraged by a recent string of court victories they have scored in their running legal skirmishes with government prosecutors. For one, the Supreme Court recently threw out for lack of merit a graft case against the late president's brother, Pacifico, for allegedly securing loans without collateral from the state-run Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP).

The high court said the PCGG failed to prove that DBP showed bad faith or inexcusable negligence when it approved the loans, or that the loans were grossly disadvantageous to the government. It said the records revealed that the DBP had studied and evaluated the loan application and followed acceptable banking practices.

The Court of Appeals also upheld last January a lower court ruling acquitting Imelda of charges of stashing US dollars abroad in violation of central bank rules and regulations. It ruled that the PCGG failed to prove that Imelda and her late husband conspired not to report their US dollar deposits in foreign bank accounts. "The witnesses presented by the prosecution have no authority to identify the documentary evidence that they have presented in court," it said. The case had been pending for 15 years.

Until now, neither Imelda nor her children have been found guilty and convicted by any Philippine court, despite the numerous civil and criminal cases, ranging from graft and corruption to human rights violations, lodged against them since 1986. How and why they have remained unscathed is a political and legal puzzle, some analysts say.

Even the US Supreme Court ruled against the claims of 10,000 alleged victims of human-rights abuses during the Marcos regime for compensation using the late president's US$35 million account held in escrow at US investment house Merrill Lynch & Co in New York. It ruled the case should instead be settled in Philippine courts. The case, however, is now in limbo following the collapse of the Merrill Lynch as a result of the US economic and financial crisis.

The Marcoses did suffer a setback when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court recently upheld the Philippines government's claim to US$5 million in the Marcoses' money stashed in Swiss bank accounts. The court found that the money was a dummy account used by the Marcoses to hide their assets abroad. Meanwhile, the Philippine National Bank (PNB) has denied reports that US$34 million of the US$624 million in Marcoses' foreign bank deposits recovered by the government from Swiss banks and held in escrow by PNB has gone missing.

"The reports are erroneous and without factual basis," PNB chief counsel Alvin Go said. "In fact, PNB was able to increase the net after-tax value of the escrowed funds by 20% over the last five years when US$624 million out of a total of US$658 million in Swiss bank deposits of the Marcoses was turned over to the Philippine government in 2004 upon orders of the Swiss Supreme Court," he said.

The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan Sheriff and Security Office also reported that about 1.9 billion pesos worth of dividends from the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co (PLDT), which the Philippine Supreme Court declared as part of the Marcos ill-gotten wealth and turned over to the government, are intact in two banks and not missing.

Friend turned foe
But the Marcos family's biggest ongoing legal battle is with ethnic Chinese tycoon Lucio Tan, ranked by Forbes magazine last year as the Philippines' richest person with an estimated US$1.5 billion net worth. The Marcoses claim they have legal documents showing that the late president owned 60% of Tan's diversified businesses, ranging from tobacco to brewery assets, hotels, real estate, airlines, banks, office buildings and other holdings.

They have contended with apparent documentary evidence that the family's ownership was held in trust by Tan under a joint venture arrangement with the late president. The Marcos heirs say they have demanded a share of the revenues from Tan ever since the late dictator's death while on forced exile in Hawaii in 1989, but were rebuffed, prompting them to sue him in court.

Although simultaneously at odds, some say it's ironic that the Marcos heirs and the PCGG have joined forces in going after Tan's alleged ill-gotten wealth in a legal collaboration branded by some critics as "anomalous". Some have speculated that the arrangement has the blessings of President Arroyo, who apparently favors other local tycoons over Tan, though no hard evidence has emerged to back such claims.

Opposition Senator Joker Arroyo (no relation to the president) sees something sinister in what he has referred to as an "unholy alliance" between the PCGG and the Marcos family in the court battle to recover the alleged ill-gotten assets of Tan.

"This is unthinkable. Why is the claim being filed only now when the PCGG started more than 20 years ago? If the PCGG succeeds in proving that some of Mr Tan's companies belong to the Marcoses, the PCGG will have to go after them too," he says.
Senator Arroyo, who served as the first executive secretary of then-president Aquino after Marcos was toppled in February 1986, helped craft Executive Order No 1, which created the PCGG in 1986 to go after the alleged ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses.

The PCGG has so far seized some US$1.2 billion of the Marcos wealth, funds the government has earmarked since 1986 to finance agrarian reform programs. Senator Arroyo, once jailed by the late dictator for subversion and leading street protests, has questioned the PCGG's preference to strike deals with the Marcoses rather than more aggressively pursue the cases pending against them.

"Prudence dictates that PCGG should be transparent. This present PCGG is fond of making deals as if it has been empowered to make deals. It was created to go after the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses and not to strike deals with them," he recently told reporters.

PCGG lawyers, however, say that in securing the testimonies of the Marcoses to boost the agency's case against Tan, it was not with prejudice to the government's standing charges against the former first family.

Al Labita has worked as a journalist for over 30 years, including as a regional bureau chief and foreign editor for the Philippine News Agency. He has worked as a Manila correspondent for several major local publications and wire agencies in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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