Washington asks questions on Marcos regime's use of US aid

As the Philippine election draws near, US investigators are digging into questions about the Marcos regime's use of US financial aid. Inquiries are proceeding on a number of fronts:

The possibility that President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, have invested millions of dollars in US real estate is being studied by a congressional subcommittee. By themselves, such investments are not illegal. But United States financial aid to the Philippines may have been diverted to pay for them, hints Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D) of New York, subcommittee chairman.

A General Accounting Office team is in the Philippines, studying whether US assistance has been siphoned off for unintended purposes. Allegations that Marcos officials steal US aid have long been made but little has been proved.

The Justice Department is checking out charges that US military aid to the Philippines has been misused as well. In a related instance, President Marcos reportedly spent $63 million on Sikorsky helicopters he did not need, after a visit from former US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who at the time worked for Sikorsky's parent company.

Marcos has long denied that his wallet or those of his associates have grown fat at the expense of US taxpayers and the Filipino poor. In a Jan. 21 Monitor interview, Philippine Foreign Minister Pacifico Castro said that US-provided funds ``were never used for purposes other than what was intended.''

Allegations that Marcos is a US real estate tycoon first gained widespread attention in June, when the San Jose Mercury News published a series of articles on the subject. Since then, Mr. Solarz and his House Foreign Affairs subcommittee have dug up considerable circumstantial evidence, but no proof, linking the Marcos family to a $20 million Long Island estate and four Manhattan office buildings.

So far, Solarz's prize bit of documentation is a tax certificate from New York's Suffolk County, which lists Vilma Bautista as having paid $16,500 in taxes on the Long Island estate in question. Ms. Bautista, an official in the Philippine mission to the UN, is reported to be a close associate of Mrs. Marcos.

In addition, the subcommittee has produced a series of letters from a Filipino architect to Mrs. Marcos, dunning her for payment for work done on the property. The architect, Augusto Camacho, threatens the Philippine First Lady with public revelations ``that will prove extremely damaging to your public image.''

The committee also has extensive oral testimony linking Mrs. Marcos with the Luna 7 Development Corporation, a real estate holding company.

Solarz and his aides say the second phase of the investigation will study whether US aid was diverted to purchase these properties. But a congressional investigator says he would be ``very surprised'' if such a circular pattern in fact existed. ``Marcos is just not that stupid,'' says this investigator, who is familiar with the case. Even so, Marcos's holdings should be considered when setting US aid levels, says a Solarz aide: ``The notion that US tax dollars should go to support a leader who is investing millions in the US is a strange one.''

GAO staff members following the trail of US aid should return from the Philippines late next month, say GAO sources. Members of Congress have asked them to study two questions: whether it is practical to funnel 25 percent of US aid through nongovernmental organizations; and whether Philippine accounting procedures for aid are lax. ``From what I know, they have not turned up anything yet,'' says a State Deptartment official.

In 1982, a similar GAO investigation found little hard evidence of corruption. Last year, a State Department audit concluded that some $700,000 in American disaster assistance to the Philippines was accounted for by false documents.

More questions have been raised about US military assistance to the Philippines, which ran about $70 million last year. The Justice Department is investigating contracts financed by this money and have taken their case before a grand jury. A preliminary GAO study last year reportedly found that some $100 million of this aid may have been wasted, going for such overly complex equipment as a microwave communication system, as well as the Sikorsky helicopters.

Marcos's image was further tarnished Thursday by a New York Times article that raised anew questions about his claim to a hero's role in World War II. The article cited US Army documents that term ``fraudulent'' Marcos's assertion that he led guerrilla fighters during the Japanese occupation of his country.

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