Money Across Borders

by Juan L. Mercado

“Follow the smell of money”. Investigative reporter Amitabha Chowdhury worked by that rule in his “Ananda Bazar Patrika” exposes of murky contracts in India. Chowdhury won the 1961 Magsaysay Award for Journalism.

Anna Politkovskaya marshalled  “accountability reporting” in “Novaya Gazeta” exposes of Vladimir Putin’s regime and maltreatment of Chechen people. A  bullet smashed into this 48-year old Russian journalist in 2006.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate break-in won the 1973 Pulitizer Prize for Public Service. Their reports led to US President  Richard Nixon’s resignation.

“Watchdog journalism” can uproot deep-rooted malfeasance at national levels. What if journalists “follow the smell of money” across borders?

This April, the  International Consortium of Investigative Journalists completed a 15-month probe of global tax havens. Led by former Sydney Morning Post’s Gerard Ryle, ICIJ  marshaled 86 journalists in 46 countries, including the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

ICIJ  focused on a hard drive, delivered mysteriously,  Agence France Presse reports. Crammed into the document were 120,000 offshore companies and nearly 130,000 individuals. ICIJ implicated the Azerbaijan president’s family and the French president’s former campaign treasurer, in it’s first release Easter week.

A PCIJ series pinpoints three Filipinos who hold secret offshore trusts in the Virgin Islands: Ilococ Norte governor “Imee” Marcos- Manotoc, Rep.Joseph Victor ‘JV’ Ejercito and Sen. Manuel. Villar Jr.

“ICIJ found more than 500 Philippine residents who have links with offshore trusts… Only half have public profiles, of varying prominence”. Others are business people who work for foreign companies.

Public officials must list all assets in annual Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth. SALNs should include those stashed abroad. The Constitution clamps an additional duty on legislators.  “Upon assumption of office, (they must) make a full disclosure of their financial and business interests.”

Imee is a beneficiary of the Sintra Trust. Other beneficiaries are her adult sons with estranged husband Tomas Manotoc: Ferdinand Richard, Matthew Joseph; and Fernando ”Borgy” Martin.

“Documents up to 2010, show that Imee had interests in a company in which the Sintra Trust was a beneficial shareholder:  ComCentre Corporation. Formed in January 2002 in the Virgin Island, it is still in operation. One Sintra Trust document refers to a United Overseas Bank account Limited Singapore. Another refers to an HSBC account at HSBC. Imee’s disclosure statements do not list them.

Imee was named investment adviser of the Sintra Trust, in June 2005, according to a document uncovered by ICIJ. As investment adviser, she can direct any financial institution in the purchase, sale, liquidation, and investment of trust assets.

Great, says former Sen. Rene Saguisag,  Discovery of assets linked to Imee may help enforce a $4.2 million judgment made by a U.S. court against her in 1991. This was for the 1977 murder of a Filipino student who publicly questioned about her government appointments. The student was tortured by state security forces under her control.“

Ferdinand and Imelda, early in their rule, chose the aliases of “William Saunders” and “Jane Ryan” when they opened secret Swiss bank accounts. Among documents the Marcoses abandoned when they fled “People Power” were accomplished “declaration/ specimen signatures” forms.  The couple signed with their real names as well as pseudonyms.

Today’s Sintra Trust bears eerie resemblance to shell Marcos foundations set up, in the early 1970s, in Liechtenstein. Then as now, the offshore entities were established in well-known tax havens that guaranteed secrecy. “Before, the beneficiaries were the Marcos couple and their children,” PCIJ noted. “ Now, it is Imee and her children.”

Rep. Ejercito ducked documentation that he held a directorship in the offshore Ice Bell Properties Limited, formed on July 8, 1999, when his father was still president. Nor did he reveal it’s worth or claim to have listed that stash in SALN.

Instead, he pounced on “timing”, since he claimed to be one of the leading contenders among UNA senatorial candidates.”  “I have held high respect to (sic) the PCIJ as an institution”, he wrote. “I hope that you will not allow yourself to fall in (sic) the manipulative efforts of desperate people in (sic) dirty politics.”

Villar admitted to being “ultimate shareholder” of Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited. It’s a dormant company with a capital of just one US dollar, he shurgged. He’d set it up in 2007 “as a ready corporate vehicle for any strategic multinational business opportunity that may become available.”

After the second release this April, ICIJ plans further publications in 2013. “We have a lot more”. Because it’s so vast and it takes a long time to understand,” Ryle said. Will more Filipinos surface?   

The US Court of Appeals (9th circuit) earlier slammed $353.6-million contempt judgment, against them Imelda and Bongbong. They tried to secretly ship out of the US, paintings and other artworks, from contested holdings for a 25 percent tax free share, the court found. That’d sandbag an injunction against tapping estate assets while the jury deliberated, “Contumacious conduct”, the US magistrate fumed. It “caused direct harm” to martial law victims.

As journalists,”our job is to inform the public about something they didn’t know”, the ICIJ chair said. “What people or authorities do afterwards is up to them”.

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