The Philippine government is to wind down a near-30-year hunt for the embezzled wealth of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, with more than half the supposed $10-billion fortune still missing, the man in charge of the search said.
With Marcos’ widow and children back in positions of political power, and the government tightening its belt, the cost of the pursuit has become prohibitive, said Andres Bautista, head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).
The PCGG chair said he had recommended to President Aquino that the commission wind down its operations and transfer its work to the justice department.
If Mr. Aquino agrees he would have to get Congress to pass a law abolishing the agency.
“It has become a law of diminishing returns at this point,” Bautista said in an interview at the commission’s offices, a rundown building where Marcos’ oldest daughter Imee used to hold office.
“It’s been 26 years and people you are after are back in power. At some point, you just have to say, ‘We’ve done our best,’ and that’s that. It is really difficult.
“In order now to be able to get these monies back, you need to spend a lot,” the PCGG chair said.
Bautista, 48, left a high-paying corporate job two years ago to answer a call to help the administration of Mr. Aquino, who promised to end corruption and uplift the lives of millions of poor Filipinos.
He and like-minded young lawyers who joined the agency soon found out that reforming the underfunded commission—itself prone to corruption—while at the same time going after powerful people, was no easy task.
Despite numerous criminal and civil cases filed against them, none of the Marcos heirs or their cronies, who have been accused of plundering government coffers, have so far been successfully prosecuted, while high-powered lawyers have been used to tie up the judicial process for years on end.
Long-term chronic mishandling of the PCGG led to an unmanageable paper trail and evidence went missing that led to bitter losses in litigation, Bautista said.
“These accusations (against the commission officials) are not without basis. They were the ones in charge of guarding the chicken coop and some of them helped themselves to the eggs,” he said, refusing to name names.
The President’s late mother and democracy icon, Corazon Aquino, replaced Marcos after a bloodless people power revolt ended his 20-year regime in 1986 and sent him and his family into US exile.
She made it her first priority to create the commission, tasked with recovering all of Marcos’ wealth. Conservative estimates put the worth of assets and funds looted from government coffers at $10 billion.
But before she left office she allowed Marcos’ flamboyant widow, Imelda—known for her thousands of pairs of shoes—and their son and two daughters to return home.
And over the past two decades the Marcoses have regained and consolidated their political base.
Still a lot of mystery
Marcos’ son and namesake, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is a senator who has hinted at contesting the presidency in the 2016 elections.
Imelda is expected to run for a second term in the House of Representatives in May, while her daughter Imee, governor of the family’s Ilocos Norte provincial bailiwick, is also widely thought to want a second term.
“There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the fabled wealth, and my sense is there is still much more out there,” Bautista said.
“Our problem now is that everyone is back in power. That does not in any way make our job any simpler.”
Since its creation, the agency has recovered P164 billion (about $4 billion), some invested in prime New York real estate, jewelry, and about $600 million stashed in secret numbered Swiss bank accounts.
The jewelry, including a 150-carat giant Burmese ruby and diamond tiara, is locked in a vault at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, and at one point the international auction house Christie’s estimated it could fetch up to $8.5 million.
More recently Bautista worked closely with the New York district attorney’s office to charge a former personal secretary of Imelda and two others over a conspiracy to sell a Monet painting that had been bought by the family.
Marcos, an astute art buyer, distributed the priceless collection of at least 300 artworks to cronies when his regime was about to crumble. Only half have been recovered so far and the rest are missing, Bautista said.
“They (the Marcos family) have the resources to go head-to-head with us in respect to litigation. Why do you think forfeiture cases are still languishing 26 years after?” Bautista said.
The agency’s annual budget of less than P100 million was only enough to pay its staff of about 200, many of them young lawyers who turned down high-paying jobs elsewhere, he added.
“It’s a lonely job. It doesn’t win you any friends,” Bautista said.