Filipino panel recovers $1 billion of Marcos assets in 100 days

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In just 100 days, the new Philippine government has captured nearly $1 billion in cash, jewelry, bank deposits, stocks, and treasury bills from former President Ferdinand Marcos, his family, and his associates. Although the fortune is small compared to the nation's $26.2 billion foreign debt, it is a sizeable and quick transfer of money for a nation of 55 million people.

The money and assets keep pouring in as investigators probe more bank accounts, company ledgers, and hidden financial papers. The quest stretches from Switzerland to Long Island to Manila. Altogether, the government of President Corazon Aquino speculates that it can unearth, and perhaps recover, about $5 billion.

Legal battles to recover Marcos-related wealth, especially in American courts, could take years, says Jovito Salonga, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government.

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But that task could be lessened if Marcos ``cronies'' -- and perhaps even Mr. Marcos himself -- strike deals with the Salonga panel. Already, the dragnet for some 329 persons considered to have ``ill-gotten wealth'' has netted one former Marcos associate. Jose Campos, who confessed to being a Marcos financial front man, has offered to cooperate with the panel in exchange for immunity from lawsuits. The commission has so far recovered $5 million from the Philippine Overseas Telecommunications Corporation with Mr. Campos's help.

Even more important, Eduardo Cojuango, known as the Philippines' ``coconut king'' and Marcos's ``closest crony,'' was reported by his lawyer Monday to be ready to return to the Philippines from the United States, where he fled with Marcos Feb. 25.

An estranged first cousin of President Aquino, Mr. Cojuango prefers to face the charges made against him rather than seek immunity for testimony against Marcos. He is accused of diverting fees collected from coconut farmers into personal use and of obtaining land on the island of Palawan illegally. He denies the charges.

``Any Filipino who wants to return to the Philippines should be given the right to return,'' said Raul Daza, one of the commissioners on Mr. Salonga's panel. Mr. Daza added that Cojuangco must be given his ``day in court.''

The commission indicated that six other Marcos associates -- so far unnamed -- have signaled they might cooperate in the effort to recover Marcos wealth. So far, the panel has sequestered 256 companies. Most of the companies were owned or controlled by only a dozen friends or relatives of Marcos, the panel discovered.

Only $73 million has been delivered to the national treasury so far. The reminder of the assets uncovered await court proceedings before they can be converted to cash. The panel reports that it has also gained hold of 5 boats, 70 vehicles, 7 planes, and 362 properties in the Philippines -- all of which must be sold before the wealth can be used by the government.

In addition, the panel hopes to gain from proceedings in the US, where there is allegedly Marcos property in Manhattan and on Long Island. Also, the Swiss government, in an usual move, froze Marcos assets in Swiss bank accounts. At the same time, a US federal judge Friday ordered the US Customs Service to return to Marcos $1.2 million, jewelry, financial papers, and other items seized upon the arrival of the Marcos entourage in February. The ruling is expected to be appealed.

The panel's work has stirred up concern in the Manila business community. Orders to sequester corporate assets have been made quickly, sometimes ruthlessly. The uncertainty hanging over many firms has contributed to the wait-and-see attitude among investors. And there is criticism that the panel is going after political ``outs'' the way Marcos did in the early 1970s against his opponents.

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