U.S. Seizes Funds, Gold of Marcos : Alleged Holdings in N.Y. Also Frozen After Manila Suit

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Customs Service has impounded millions of dollars worth of money, gold and jewels that former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos brought to Hawaii when he fled Manila last week, the State Department said Monday.

As the new government of President Corazon Aquino moved to challenge Marcos' right to retain the wealth he amassed over 20 years in power, officials and judges in Washington, New York and Honolulu ordered much of his property frozen until the legal issues are resolved.

In Honolulu, the Aquino government, acting through the Central Bank of the Philippines and local attorneys, filed suit in federal court seeking a preliminary injunction that would block release of the 22 boxes of Philippine currency and provide for the money to be delivered to the Philippine government.

N.Y. Restraining Order

In New York, a state Supreme Court justice issued a temporary restraining order tying up three office buildings, a shopping center and a Long Island estate that Marcos allegedly owns through surrogate firms.

And in Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that most of the property that Marcos' entourage brought to Hawaii--including $1.2 million in Philippine peso notes--will remain in the custody of the Customs Service in Honolulu until U.S. courts decide whether Aquino's government has a legal claim to its ownership.

"For the moment, it remains impounded," Redman said.

That was confirmed during a hearing before Judge Harold M. Fong in Honolulu. Lawyers for the Philippine government and U.S. Customs told the court they have agreed that Customs will maintain possession of the currency for at least the next two weeks.

They said they also agreed that on Friday, an inventory of the contents of the 22 boxes of currency brought out of the Philippines with Marcos will be provided to the Philippine government's attorneys.

Request Withdrawn

Based on this agreement, the Philippine bank's lawyer, C. Michael Hare, withdrew his request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting release of the currency.

The bank's suit named Marcos, 19 members of his family and entourage, and George Roberts, U.S. Customs director in Hawaii, as defendants.

Richard A. Hibey, a Washington lawyer retained by Marcos and his entourage, sought and received assurances during the hearing that the inventory of the crates' contents would not be released before Friday. After the hearing, Hibey said he wanted that guarantee "to give me the opportunity, if I choose to do so, to come in and challenge turning over that inventory."

In addition to the suit over the currency, the Aquino government has already filed suits to assert ownership of the New York real estate and is considering a claim against much of the other property that Marcos brought to Hawaii, a lawyer for the new regime said.

May Not Prevail

The government's chances of winning its suits are uncertain, officials in Washington said. The Manila regime must both prove its rightful ownership of the assets and find grounds under U.S. law to sue for them. Neither, they said, had been clearly demonstrated Monday.

Hibey said the suit seeking recovery of the currency raised "questions of jurisdiction and applicability of the statutes cited by the plaintiffs."

But Aquino's lawyers said that the Reagan Administration's decision to hold most of the exiled president's baggage in Honolulu Customs gave them more time to act.

"It's a help," said David Lerner of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, a human rights law organization that is representing the new government.

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified by name, said the Administration agreed to hold on to the property--which was "detained" by Customs when it arrived last week--after the Aquino government asked that it not be released.

The property involved was carried on two Air Force C-141 cargo jets that served as baggage planes for the Marcos party. The cargo reportedly included millions of dollars worth of U.S. and Philippines currency, gold, jewels, stocks and bonds.

Redman and Customs Service spokesman Dennis Murphy noted that the U.S. government has taken no specific new action in keeping the cargo in Customs. "It's the status quo," Murphy said. "It came in. We inspected it, inventoried it and detained it, and there it is."

Redman said the question of ownership of Marcos family assets concerned the deposed president, the Philippine government and possibly other parties, "but not the U.S. government."

It is not clear whether, under current U.S. law, Aquino's government has legal standing to press suits against Marcos in U.S. courts. But Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, is expected to introduce legislation later this week that would specifically authorize the Manila government to seek recovery of Marcos' assets.

A subcommittee aide said that the courts previously have refused to hear such suits, most notably in 1979, when Iran's revolutionary government sought to reclaim money invested in the United States by the deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Redman said that two State Department representatives, one from the department's legal office, have been sent from Washington to Honolulu to "coordinate with Customs and others" concerning the legal status of Marcos, his associates and their property.

The New York state court order barring the transfer of five properties allegedly owned by Marcos was signed by Justice Elliott Wilk on Sunday night and served Monday on the Office of the City Register in Manhattan, which records deeds, mortgages and other documents related to real estate.

In an affidavit submitted to Wilk, Aquino government representative Bonifacio Gillego charged that Marcos, his family and others misappropriated or concealed money and assets belonging to the Philippine people for 20 years.

"The salary received by Ferdinand Marcos as the president of the Philippines was 5,600 U.S. dollars annually," Gillego's affidavit said in part.

"I know from my own personal knowledge . . . that President Marcos did not possess personal wealth or assets of the magnitude he currently holds upon taking office in November, 1965."

Bernsteins Also Restrained

The temporary restraining order also was served Monday on Ralph and Joseph Bernstein and their firm, New York Land Co.

During congressional testimony, the Bernsteins were identified as among Marcos' principal representatives in the United States. On Monday, lawyers for the Aquino government charged that the Bernsteins were passengers on the plane that carried Marcos from Manila.

Meanwhile, outside Honolulu, the Marcos party remained secluded at Hickam Air Force Base. Hibey, representing Marcos in the currency case in Honolulu, said he had met with the former president after arriving Monday morning. Asked about Marcos' health, Hibey said, "He looked good to me."

Times staff writers John J. Goldman in New York and David Holley in Honolulu also contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World