Lack of will to recover the Marcos loot
Early in the new year, a dispirited Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) sent out signals it had been worn down by battle fatigue in its efforts to recover the ill-gotten wealth of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
On January 1, PCGG chairman Andres Bautista said in an interview that he had recommended to President Benigno Aquino III that the agency wind down its 26-year task of flushing out Marcos' hidden wealth because of the frustrating results of the search.
For three decades after the overthrow of the dictatorship in the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, the recovery effort by the Cory Aquino successor administration had yielded less than half of the estimated US$10 billion fortune. It galled Bautista to report that with Marcos' widow, Imelda, and children back in positions of power, the costs of recovery had become prohibitive.
"It has become a law of diminishing returns at this point," Bautista said. "It's been 26 years and the people you are after are back in power. At some point, you have to say, 'We've done our best,' and that's that. It is really difficult. In order to be able to get these monies back, you need to spend a lot." Bautista was speaking from the point of view of an accountant's cost analysis.
He recommended to the president that the PCGG - one of the first offices Cory Aquino created after taking power from Marcos - wind down its operations and transfer its work to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the sequestered Marcos assets to the Department of Finance (DOF).
It is not clear how the transfer would revitalise the flagging effort to recover the Marcos wealth or whether the DOJ would do a more zealous job than the PCGG, or whether it would be given more powers than the PCGG. Bautista said prosecution functions should be transferred to the DOJ.
This is a case of eroding political will. We have no idea how the justice department will inject will into the PCGG.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the predent was still studying the recommendation, but Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the "mindset" of Aquino was that the commission need not continue its work. If this is true, dismantling the PCGG would put the pesident in the quandary of reversing an important programme of his late mother.
But De Lima further said the PCGG "cannot exist forever" and that it had a "limited lifetime". She said the DOJ was ready to handle the prosecution of PCGG cases.
The PCGG made the recommendation in January 2011. However, Bautista emphasised that he didn't say "we're ending the hunt for the ill-gotten wealth.… I believe that that should continue because a substantial portion remains unrecovered."
Although the government was showing signs of battle fatigue, there were warnings that the dismantling of the PCGG would send the signal that the government was abandoning a programme intended to make the Marcos heirs accountable for the dictatorship's embezzlement of public wealth.
Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, said there was no reason for the PCGG to stop going after the Marcos wealth unless it could no longer prove a claim against Marcos' estate. He said the PCGG's difficulties were a "lame excuse" to wrap up its mandate to recover the loot of Marcos and his cronies.
Bautista pointed out that the return to power of Imelda, who continuously flaunts her wealth, as Ilocos Norte representative, and the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, as senator, and Imee Marcos as Ilocos Norte governor did not make the PCGG's job any easier.
The PCCG's record of recovering lost assets and filing criminal cases of corruption related to the unexplained wealth case is far from impressive. Despite numerous criminal and civil cases filed against the Marcos heirs and cronies for plundering public wealth, none has so far been successfully prosecuted. About 200 cases against the Marcoses and their cronies are pending in the anti-graft court.
Bautista said the PCGG would unlikely file new cases due to the difficulty of getting evidence and witnesses against the Marcoses and their cronies more than a quarter of a century after the overthrow of the dictatorship. Time has played into the hands of the Marcoses.
Since its creation, the PCGG has recovered about $4 billion worth of assets, some invested in prime New York real estate, jewellery, and about $600 million laundered in secret Swiss bank accounts. Bautista blamed the resources available to the Marcoses to defend themselves in litigations for the languishing of the cases against them for 26 years.
The unkindest cut of all is that the PCGG's annual budget was only enough to pay its staff of about 200 lawyers.
How can a government win legal battles by tying its own hands. This is suicide. The PCGG cannot win by offering excuses.