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Witness in U.S. Probe of Marcos’ Assets in Hiding

Times Staff Writer

A confidante of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, believed to hold the key to hundreds of millions of dollars in secret transactions by the ousted Philippine president, has gone into hiding to avoid extradition from Italy to the United States, potentially hampering the federal inquiry into Marcos’ tangled financial affairs.

Gliceria Tantoco, the wife of a former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican and a prominent figure in the retinue of the deposed Philippine first lady, is regarded as an important witness for a federal grand jury investigating allegations that Marcos has converted Philippine assets to his personal use.

Specifically, the grand jury is examining whether the Marcoses illegally acquired New York real estate and fraudulently attempted to transfer it to Saudi Arabian financier Adnan Khashoggi under an agreement to share the proceeds of subsequent sales. The federal panel also is looking into claims that the Marcoses illegally acquired millions of dollars worth of jewelry that they brought to the United States when they fled the Philippines in February, 1986.

However, federal law enforcement officials who confirmed that Tantoco is a fugitive after jumping a bail of 100 million lira (about $100,000 at the time) denied that her disappearance will prevent the grand jury from pursuing its racketeering investigation.

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“We’re not sitting around waiting for Mrs. Tantoco,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles LaBella said.

The federal prosecutor declined to discuss details of the grand jury probe, but sources in Europe and the United States say the panel would like to question Tantoco about such transactions as:

--Her alleged backdating of declarations of trust in connection with ownership transfers on four New York buildings. The declarations were intended to make it appear that Khashoggi had owned the buildings since August, 1985, well before a court order barring such transfers.

--The $25 million in cash that Khashoggi took from the Geneva bank account of one of the Marcos-connected companies and delivered to Gliceria Tantoco in West Germany in April, 1986.

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According to sources familiar with the transaction, the $25 million can be traced back to the Herald Square Shopping Center, one of the four New York buildings controlled by Marcos--or Khashoggi or others--through a complex chain of interlocking companies and trust accounts in Panama, the Netherlands Antilles and Switzerland.

Khashoggi took the $25 million in cash from the Gladiator Trust account maintained on behalf of the Netherlands Antilles-based Canadian Land Co. at Geneva’s Lombard Odier Bank--a bank without so much as an identifying name plaque on its door.

Being Probed in Manila

Although the Canadian Land Co. holds the Herald Square property, sources say, the Caribbean holding company in turn is held by three Panamanian companies whose ownership, through bearer stock shares, is in dispute and, finally, is the subject of federal investigation and of civil litigation brought against Marcos by the Philippine government.

Tantoco is one of those believed to have intimate knowledge of the labyrinthine corporate web.

“She can do serious damage to Marcos and Adnan if she decides she’d rather talk than spend another day in jail,” one source familiar with the transactions said. “And I hear she got more than her fill of jail time already.”

Tantoco was arrested by Italian authorities at the Rome airport late last summer at the request of the United States, based on a sealed federal fraud indictment in New York. The indictment accuses her of failing to pay nearly $500,000 in New York city and state taxes on $5.9 million in art and antiques bought in September, 1981, reportedly on behalf of the Marcoses.

70 Days in Rome Jail

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She spent 70 days in a Rome jail fighting extradition to the United States before Italian authorities, responding to a claim that she was suffering from a “life-threatening” heart condition, freed her on bail.

Italian and U.S. authorities say they do not know where Tantoco has gone. “Marcos’ money goes around the world, so I guess they could be anywhere on the globe,” one U.S. official said. Now Italy, as well as the United States, is seeking international cooperation in arresting her. And criminal charges are pending against Tantoco in her native Philippines.

“She’s playing a very dangerous game,” LaBella said. “She can’t stay in hiding forever.” Her New York attorney, Steve Hogan, did not return phone calls.

Tantoco’s husband, Bienvenido--the former ambassador and Philippine financier who faces prison on unrelated weapons charges in Italy--also has fled the couple’s Rome residence, sources said. That residence, a villa on the ancient Appian Way, has been seized to satisfy forfeited bail bonds, sources said.

Police Found Arsenal

Bienvenido Tantoco was arrested in August, 1986, when Italian anti-terrorist police confiscated a cache that included 12 handguns, two Uzi submachine guns, bulletproof vests, cattle prods, spike balls chained to metal sticks, tear gas canisters, several radio transmitters, a metal detector and several diplomatic car license plates.

“These were certainly not for defensive purposes or protection,” police Capt. Ugo Mastrolitto told a news conference at the time. “The life (Bienvenido) Tantoco led was not that of a person in retirement.”

It was not clear Tuesday when the Tantocos had disappeared. However, officials in Italy and the United States acknowledged last week that the couple were fugitives after an Italian Supreme Court ruling that finally had cleared the way for Mrs. Tantoco’s extradition.

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“All we have to do now is find her,” a law enforcement source said.

Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story from Washington.


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