NEW YORK — SHE is probably best known for her taste in shoes. But starting tomorrow, the public will also get to know Imelda Marcos's face and financial dealings: Her trial begins on charges that she siphoning more than $300 million from the Philippine government. The trial is unique, marking the first time the United States has prosecuted the widow of a former leader of a foreign country for crimes essentially committed outside the US. The trial will be watched closely by lawyers representing Gen. Manuel Noriega, who is also accused of crimes committed outside the US.
The Marcos trial is sure to have plenty of made-for-tabloid news, because it will be full of Swiss bank accounts, aliases, secret codes, and shell corporations. Witnesses will detail alleged kickbacks and bribes made to Mrs. Marcos and her late husband, Ferdinand, who died last fall. Jury selection for the trial begins tomorrow in Manhattan's federal court.
As part of the pretrial process, the government shipped the defense 350,000 pages of documents it says relates to the trial which could take more than six months to complete. There are three civil cases pending against Mrs. Marcos as well.
Mrs. Marcos will be defended by several teams of lawyers, led by a Wyoming litigator who wears a Stetson hat and turquoise jewelry. The defense will attempt to portray Marcos as a busy first lady who merely had her country's best interests at heart.
``The trial is going to be a Broadway play, a comedy-tragedy affair,'' says Erno Parial, editor of the Philippines News.
The trial of Mrs. Marcos has strong political overtones. She is a personal friend of ex-President and Mrs. Reagan. In fact, the evidence includes a letter Mrs. Marcos wrote Mrs. Reagan asking for the first lady's personal intervention to prevent the indictment of her and husband. James Feinerman, a Georgetown University Law School professor, says the trial may help Philippine President Corazon Aquino. ``There is a lot of nostalgia for Marcos in the Philippines with people making noises about going back to the `good old days.' This may remind them the good old days were not so good.''
That will be the intent of the prosecution, led by assistant US Attorney Charles LaBella. According to an affidavit, Mr. LaBella says the US opened the case almost immediately after the Marcoses left the Philippines in March 1986.
As the investigation progressed, it began to focus on the Marcoses' purchase of four New York office buildings. Each property was owned by an offshore corporation, which in turn was owned by Panamanian corporations. The ownership of the Panamanian corporations was concealed.
To further hide their ownership of the properties, the government alleges the Marcoses enlisted the aid of Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian investor. The government is now charging Mr. Khashoggi, who was extradited from Switzerland, with obstruction of justice and mail fraud. Khashoggi asked to have his case severed from the Marcos trial.
Tracing the money was difficult since the Marcoses did not maintain checking accounts in their own names. LaBella says the government will show the manner in which the funds were acquired ``through the receipt of bribes, kickbacks, and stolen Philippine government funds.'' The government will try to prove the Marcoses used this money to buy the real estate as well as a house full of paintings and antiques.
The bulk of the government's proof will be US and foreign bank records, documents seized by the US Customs Service when the Marcoses entered the country and documents found in the Philippines. Two weeks ago, the government convinced Rodolfo Arambulo, the former president of the California Overseas Bank to plead guilty to mail fraud and assist the prosecution. His testimony will help to buttress the government's case since the bank was an integral part of the money transfers.
Mr. Arambulo can explain the scores of aliases the Marcoses used to set up bank accounts. Mrs. Marcos, for example, used the alias of Jane Ryan while Mr. Marcos was William Saunders. The government claims to have identified $1.3 billion in Marcos funds in Swiss banks.
Mrs. Marcos's lawyer, Gerald Spence, will argue that the trial is a political event. Mr. Spence is best known for his successful libel lawsuit on behalf of a former Miss Wyoming against Hustler Magazine. The judge is John Keenan, whose last high-publicity case involved Bess Myerson, a former city official and ex-Miss America.