Viewpoint

Caribbean ‘piggy banks’

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

Anna Politkovskaya used “accountability reporting” in the Novaya Gazeta exposés on Vladimir Putin’s regime and abuse of the Chechen people. A gunman, in 2006, cut her down in a Moscow lift. She was 48.

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

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

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) did just that. This April, ICIJ completed a 15-month probe of global tax havens. Former Sydney Morning Post’s Gerard Ryle, marshaled 86 journalists in 46 countries, including the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

They picked apart a hard drive delivered mysteriously, Agence France Presse reports. Crammed into it were accounts of 120,000 offshore companies and 130,000 individuals. In its first release during the Easter week, ICIJ nailed the Azerbaijan president’s family and the French president’s former campaign treasurer.

PCIJ pinpointed three Filipinos who hold secret offshore trusts in the British Virgin Islands: Ilocos Norte Gov. 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… Half have public profiles of varying prominence.” Others are businessmen in foreign companies.

Public officials must list all their assets on their annual statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs). These declarations should include stashes abroad. The Constitution directs: “Upon assumption of office, (legislators must) make a full disclosure of their financial and business interests.”

Imee is a beneficiary of Sintra Trust. Others in the trough are her adult sons with estranged husband Tomas Manotoc: Ferdinand Richard, Matthew Joseph, and Fernando “Borgy” Martin. Documents up to 2010 show that Imee also had interests in a company in which Sintra Trust was a beneficial shareholder: ComCentre Corp. Formed in January 2002, in the British Virgin Islands, it is still in operation.

One Sintra Trust document refers to a United Overseas Bank account. Another refers to an HSBC account. In June 2005, Imee was named investment adviser of Sintra Trust, according to a document uncovered by ICIJ. As such, she can direct any financial institution in the purchase, sale, liquidation and investment of trust assets. Imee’s disclosure statements do not list them.

“Realize that when I was 20 years old, I had a house, a Mercedes, a Corvette, plus millions in an offshore Caribbean account, before I could buy alcohol legally.” It was not Imee who said that. But she proclaimed, at every turn, “transparency” in conduct of official duties. On Ilocos Norte’s foundation day, Imee opened up the capitol to people, literally. “We even opened a provincial safe to show tax collections, how they process the money and bring them to the bank,” she told the Inquirer. Alas, that didn’t include British Virgin Islands slush funds.

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

Today’s Sintra Trust eerily clones shell Marcos foundations set up early 1970s in Liechtenstein. Then as now, 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.”

Representative Ejercito ducked documentation that he held a directorship in the offshore Ice Bell Properties Limited, formed on July 8, 1999. His father was then president. Ejercito  neither revealed its worth nor did he claim he listed that stash in his SALN.

Instead, he pounced on “timing”—he claims to be one of the leading United Nationalist Alliance 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 an “ultimate shareholder” of Awesome Dragon Holdings Limited. It’s a dormant company with a capital of just one US dollar, he shrugged. He had set it up in 2007 “as a ready corporate vehicle for any multinational business opportunity.” Did Villar wink?

ICIJ plans further publications in 2013. Don’t look at Imelda Marcos and son Bongbong. Their SALNs do not list offshore kitties. And  both still reel from the US Court of Appeals (9th Circuit) decision that slammed a $353.6-million contempt judgment against them for trying to secretly ship, out of the United States, paintings and other artworks from contested holdings for a 25-percent tax-free share. “Contumacious conduct,” the judge fumed. It would have sandbagged the jury deliberations.

“We have a lot more,” Ryle said. The data is “so vast and it takes a long time to understand.” 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.”

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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