COLUMN ONE : An Actor’s Close Ties to Marcos : The Philippine government’s quest for missing funds leads to George Hamilton’s former doorstep in Beverly Hills.
For three decades, actor George Hamilton’s associations with the rich and famous women of the world--from Lynda Bird Johnson to Vanessa Redgrave and Elizabeth Taylor--have landed his name in the pages of international glamour and gossip magazines.
Now, one of those prominent friendships, with deposed Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, has put Hamilton in the middle of global legal disputes, precipitated threats against his life and made his former Beverly Hills mansion the object of a Manila government effort to recover some fraction of the billions of dollars stolen from its national treasury during the Marcos regime.
Over the years, Hamilton and Mrs. Marcos have traveled the world together, met the Pope together, even shopped together. They have wined, dined, danced and sung Imelda’s favorite song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” together.
But previously sealed court documents and other financial records recently obtained by The Times further reveal that the actor and the widow of Ferdinand E. Marcos did business together--and that Hamilton was used, perhaps unwittingly, in the historic looting of the Philippine treasury by the Marcoses.
Marcos and his wife, accused in pending civil cases of using sophisticated schemes to convert billions of public dollars into private wealth during two decades in the presidential palace, funneled more than $12 million through Hamilton’s personal accounts before they were ousted, according to court documents from Los Angeles and New York.
Hamilton, 51, used portions of the $12 million to finance a lavish house in Beverly Hills and launch a film development project. In a previously sealed deposition, the actor testified that he got the money from associates of the Marcoses, that he paid it back and that he had no knowledge that the Marcoses were personally linked to the funds.
However, investigators have discovered that the money eventually wound up back in the Marcoses’ control outside the Philippines. And although the $12 million in Hamilton transactions represent only a fraction of the $5 billion that the Marcoses are suspected of bleeding from their nation’s economy, the transactions are regarded by federal investigators as “typical Marcos deals.”
Furthermore, The Times has learned, the former Hamilton house--a one-acre hillside estate in exclusive Benedict Canyon--is about to become property of the Philippine government. The settlement agreement, expected to be announced perhaps as early as next week, validates Manila’s claims that the house, which Hamilton sold in 1986, was financed with looted Philippine funds.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles G. LaBella, a New York federal prosecutor involved in those settlement negotiations, said that the Marcoses used Hamilton as “a front” to move money.
But the actor’s attorney, Arthur N. Greenberg, said Hamilton thought he was dealing with wealthy Philippine entrepreneurs and never knew that the millions of dollars he received came from his friends, the Marcoses.
“Maybe he was a tool for someone, an innocent,” Greenberg said in an interview at his Century City office. “He would not knowingly participate in any transaction that has any taint.”
Privacy Claim Lost
Hamilton declined to be interviewed for this story after his attorneys lost a strenuous legal battle to keep sealed hundreds of pages of records and testimony. He said the release would be a violation of his privacy. He also said that when he was linked to the Marcoses in the past, he received anonymous death threats.
U.S. Dist. Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer ordered the papers released last June, and a federal appeals court, calling the actor “a noted man-about-town” who should expect to be the object of publicity, rejected Hamilton’s appeal. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor turned back his final appeal in late August.
In public testimony and in his previously sealed deposition, taken in 1987 as part of a Philippine government lawsuit against the Marcoses, the actor acknowledged only a social relationship with the Marcoses and repeatedly denied having any business links with the woman he commonly refers to as “Madam Marcos.”
But the newly released court documents and other related records trace the $12 million from secret Marcos accounts in the Philippines, through Hamilton investments in the United States, to foreign banks and offshore shell companies associated with the Marcoses.
In one transaction, $5.5 million in U.S. currency, raised by the government-owned Philippine National Oil Co., was siphoned into an abortive Hamilton movie production on the wartime love life of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Eventually, Hamilton relinquished the money to a Hong Kong bank and the funds ended up in London, where a Filipino architect gave the $5.5 million to “two swarthy men” linked to Mrs. Marcos, according to investigators.
Additional Philippine funds financed Hamilton real estate investments, including a Mississippi plantation and his former Benedict Canyon home, built by screen legend Charlie Chaplin.
It was because of these transactions that the actor was named an unindicted co-conspirator in a New York federal fraud and racketeering case that accused the Marcoses of stealing Philippine money for private real estate investments. Marcos died before going to trial and Mrs. Marcos was acquitted in the case prosecuted by LaBella. However, she remains a defendant in federal civil suits in Los Angeles and New York that make similar allegations.
Interviews, testimony and court records--some of which were part of the massive evidence introduced in the New York case--also cast new light on the long-acknowledged relationship between the actor and Madam Marcos.
“He was in competition with me (to be) an investment adviser to Imelda,” said Joseph Bernstein, former property manager of the Marcoses’ once-secret real estate holdings in New York. He said Hamilton attended business meetings with Mrs. Marcos.
Once, when Bernstein suggested that Mrs. Marcos should consider investing in a 200,000-acre Utah site, he said Hamilton came up to his office to investigate the deal on her behalf.
“Things would come up in meetings and she’d turn to (Hamilton) and ask what he thought about this or that. He advised her. They had a very close relationship,” Bernstein said in an interview.
Attorney Greenberg said he had no comment on Bernstein’s assertions, but later declared:
“You have to understand George. He is a courtly Southern gentleman. He wouldn’t talk business with Mrs. Marcos any more than he would with the Pope.”
LaBella is skeptical. “Imelda was funding him,” said the prosecutor, who continues to investigate the flow of Marcos funds around the world.
Hamilton has acknowledged publicly and privately that he received things of value from Mrs. Marcos, from free trips to Morocco and Europe to the use of Filipino laborers sent to help remodel his house to a white Rolls-Royce for his mother. He called them personal gifts.
Hamilton first met Mrs. Marcos in 1979, while on a world promotional tour for his movie “Love at First Bite.” The actor, then at the pinnacle of his movie career, had produced the box office success, in which he also starred as a comedic vampire. During a Manila stop, he was invited to lunch at Malacanang Palace, where he also was a hit.
It was on his first trip to Manila that Hamilton also met two prominent Filipino business figures: Antonio O. Floirendo and Gliceria (Glecy) Tantoco, the latter regarded as the most intimate of Mrs. Marcos’ inner circle known as the “Blue Ladies.” (The name came from the color of the dresses they wore as volunteers in Marcos’ election campaigns.)
Tantoco, who today lives in Morocco as a fugitive from federal fraud charges in New York and bail-jumping charges in Rome, traveled virtually everywhere with Mrs. Marcos and acted as her agent in purchases of art, jewelry and real estate, court records confirm.
Floirendo, who said in a sworn affidavit obtained by The Times that Mrs. Marcos directed him to lend money to Hamilton, was a Philippine sugar and banana magnate who owed his fortune to Marcos-assisted business deals. He admitted fronting for secret Marcos interests in a Long Island estate called Lindenmere and a posh 5th Avenue apartment suite in Olympic Tower.
Floirendo’s first loan to Hamilton, made in April, 1982, at the request of Mrs. Marcos, was $600,000, he said. Hamilton acknowledged receiving the money, but in his previously sealed deposition the actor denied knowing the money came from Mrs. Marcos. He said the funds were used to refinance a Mississippi plantation he called “The Cedars.”
Cannes of the East
That loan was made just two months after Hamilton was among guests at a Philippine extravaganza--the First Manila International Film Festival. Mrs. Marcos hoped to promote it as the Cannes of the East. According to one press account, more than 2,000 guests “nibbled from the carcasses of roasted cows and drank from $100 bottles of French Champagne” as the Marcoses presided over a medieval pageant of native dancers, beauty queens, a parade of religious floats and fireworks.
During that period, Hamilton said, he had discussions with Tantoco and Floirendo about developing a Philippine film industry. In March, 1983, Hamilton flew to Hong Kong to pick up personally $5.5 million from a Tantoco bank account. The money was for what prosecutor LaBella called a “supposed movie deal”--purportedly a plan to develop a film about Gen. MacArthur’s wartime exploits.
A week earlier, the $5.5 million had been in a numbered Manila bank account secretly controlled by the Marcoses. Furthermore, the funds had been converted from Philippine pesos into U.S. dollars by siphoning hard currency away from the vital dollar reserves of the government-owned Philippine National Oil Co.
Although the money went to Hamilton from Mrs. Tantoco’s account, prosecutor LaBella said it was really a transaction involving Imelda Marcos. “Glecy Tantoco was used as a front (in) . . . a typical Marcos transaction,” he said.
As Hamilton described it, the project became something of a personal embarrassment to him from the moment it was funded. He blamed that on pressure, perhaps from Tantoco, to make a film about the famous general’s love affair with a Filipina.
“Initially, at the outset of this MacArthur film, I thought of it as being an action-oriented film . . . ,” Hamilton testified in his 1987 deposition. “And then we started talking about the real theme of the film. The real theme of the film became something far more sensitive than I had wanted to get into.”
It turned out, he said, that the story was to be built around the general’s “very unrequited” love affair. “When he said ‘I shall return,’ (it) was based on his own decision that he wanted to bring this large invasion force to the doorstep of the woman that he loved,” the actor said.
Hamilton, a self-described long-time friend of the MacArthur family, conceived the movie idea and supposedly had extensive control over the project. He did not explain in his testimony how or why his project could be so drastically transformed against his wishes.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Ted Laguatan, U.S.-based special counsel to President Corazon Aquino’s Commission on Good Government. “We’re not sure there ever was a real movie project.”
In his deposition, Hamilton testified that he decided against going ahead with the project. Documents show he returned $5.5 million to Tantoco’s account at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank on Nov. 22, 1983. Court records, testimony and financial documents show that the money then followed a zigzag path that investigators believe ended in Marcos control.
Immediately after Hamilton returned the money, it was transferred again, across town, to another Tantoco account at Hong Kong’s Wardley Bank Ltd.
A week later, the $5.5 million was transferred to London’s National Westminster Bank into the account of Jorge Ramos, a Filipino architect Mrs. Marcos hired to refurbish her secretly owned Lindenmere estate on Long Island and other properties in the United States.
Investigators lost track of the money in London. Ramos told them he turned it over to “two swarthy men--presumably Filipinos.” He said he acted on instructions from Mrs. Tantoco, the agent for Mrs. Marcos. Ramos said he could not remember the names of the men who picked up the $5.5 million.
At the time, according to one page from a Malacanang Palace ledger obtained by federal investigators, the $5.5 million was entered as money ultimately controlled by the Marcoses’ private financial manager, Manila bank president Rolando Gapud.
By the time Hamilton returned the money to Tantoco’s Hong Kong account in November, he had already received another $6 million from Floirendo, a sum provided at the specific request of Mrs. Marcos, according to Floirendo’s affidavit.
It was in this transaction that the seeds of the Philippine government’s successful claim to the 13,436-square-foot Beverly Hills house were sown.
Unlike Tantoco’s supposed movie investment, the $6 million from Floirendo was regarded as a loan. Records show that two-thirds of it--$4 million--was to be secured by the Beverly Hills house. The remaining $2 million was loaned with no security. Hamilton simply signed a promissory note.
A lawyer for the Philippines said the house was not worth nearly enough to be collateral for a $4-million loan. Just a year earlier, in 1982, Hamilton had paid $1.5 million for the property. And an appraisal filed eight months before the loan was made estimated that the house was worth only $2.3 million. Why did Mrs. Marcos want money invested in Hamilton’s house?
“We always thought that it was really a Marcos house--that maybe it was some sort of joint venture,” one Philippine investigator said. “Maybe she used the house to justify giving money to Hamilton . . . but obviously she had some interest in it.”
That was further illustrated by the contents of a letter found among the once-sealed court records. Hamilton was interested in buying a neighbor’s property in order to expand his house, and Bernstein--Mrs. Marcos’ property manager in New York--made veiled inquiries on his behalf. No deal resulted from the May, 1983, letter Bernstein sent to Hamilton’s neighbors.
Bernstein said in an interview, however: “I was totally directed by Imelda in this. It was my impression she was very involved with that house.”
After getting the Floirendo loan, Hamilton began an extensive remodeling project that included adding a large garage and about 2,000 square feet of living space to the mansion. Some of the Marcos money could have been invested in that enterprise, investigators said.
Hamilton’s attorney shrugged off suggestions of sweetheart deals, saying Hamilton repaid Floirendo. However, Floirendo declared in his affidavit that all the money went to other individuals or shell corporations on orders from Mrs. Marcos, and that she dictated who controlled the loans.
First, the promissory note was canceled after Hamilton, at the request of Floirendo’s lawyers, endorsed a cashier’s check for $2,027,068.49 to a man named Bernard White. Floirendo said it was Mrs. Marcos who directed that the check be endorsed to White.
“I did not receive any amount from that check,” Floirendo said in his affidavit.
He also said that Mrs. Marcos later ordered him to transfer the $4-million mortgage on the Hamilton house to another Caribbean shell corporation, Krodo Properties NV, in May, 1984.
Attorneys for the Philippine government believe that Krodo was a secret entity of the Marcoses, used to funnel money to Hamilton or to control the property without revealing their interests.
In March, 1986, as the Marcoses settled into exile in Hawaii, Hamilton’s house was sold to a Cayman Islands corporation controlled by Saudi financier and arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi for $6.5 million. Khashoggi assumed the $4-million Krodo loan, and he has acknowledged acting at the behest of the Marcoses.
Hamilton’s attorney, Greenberg, said that his client made a profit on the house sale, but he did not know how much. It was unclear whether Khashoggi put up any of his own cash to complete the deal.
Assistant U.S. Atty. LaBella characterized the Floirendo loans and elements of the 1986 house sale as “strange transactions” that appeared to disguise the transfer of Marcos funds out of the Philippines via the Beverly Hills property.
“It had all the appearance of a sham transaction,” the Philippines’ Laguatan said.
But Hamilton’s attorney said that the actor thought he was dealing only with Khashoggi, Floirendo and their agents.
“I don’t believe (Hamilton) had any reason to believe he was dealing with money belonging to Mrs. Marcos,” Greenberg said. “It was an arm’s-length transaction. He made deposits in his own name, not fictitious accounts . . . . It was all above board.”
Whatever happened in the past, the future of the former Hamilton house is certain: it goes to the Philippine government as soon as the agreement, already approved, is filed.
Los Angeles lawyers Alan I. Bersin and Ronald L. Olson, representing the Aquino government in a civil fraud action against the Marcoses, are expected to deliver the deed to officials in Manila next week. The Manila government plans to sell the house, now valued at more than $5 million, to help shore up its depleted hard currency reserves.
Although Hamilton maintains that he has had no involvement with the house since selling it to Khashoggi in 1986, he nonetheless is laying claim to art and furnishings in the house that he says are personal belongings “of great sentimental value” to his mother.
Among the disputed items, estimated to be worth as much as $500,000, are pre-Columbian pottery, a painting of Rudolf Valentino and a red velvet Victorian tete-a-tete on lion paw supports. Greenberg could not explain why Hamilton waited so long to claim items in a house he sold more than four years ago.
Acquisition of the Beverly Hills house will add to a growing list of recent property recoveries in the United States made by the Philippine government which has filed a civil racketeering case in Los Angeles federal court, seeking to recover some of the billions of dollars it claims was stolen by the Marcoses and their cronies.
Earlier this year, in out-of-court settlements jointly negotiated with New York federal prosecutors, the Philippines took over a $30-million Beverly Hills bank formerly controlled by the Marcoses and numerous art works valued at about $10 million. Previously, the Philippines had gained control of Lindenmere, four Manhattan skyscrapers and the posh Olympic Tower suites.
Philippine government sources said they discovered that both Hamilton and his mother had their own keys to the Olympic Tower home--which apparently caused some embarrassment, they said, when Hamilton tried to enter shortly after the Marcos regime collapsed.
“We already had changed the locks,” one official said. “He was going to show the apartment to Elizabeth Taylor, but they couldn’t get in.”
Philippine journalist Kristina M. Luz contributed to this story.
Memphis-born George Stevens Hamilton, 51, arrived in Hollywood at age 19 with a state acting award from Florida. He almost immediately landed the lead in a low-budget film, “Crime and Punishment, U.S.A.” MGM put him under contract. When Hamilton met with studio officials to negotiate, he showed up in a rented Rolls-Royce. His playboy image was born. That image has been reinforced over the years by a lavish lifestyle and decades of noted romances with rich and famous women. More recently, Hamilton has been increasingly prominent as an entrepreneur in the tanning and skin care business, marketing his own line of cosmetics and colognes. Newsweek magazine dubbed him “the Sultan of suntan.”