Who did not hear of the name Herminio Disini in the 1970s and 1980s? A close associate and golfing buddy of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Disini finessed the eponymous Herdis Group until it acquired mythic proportions. Time magazine reported in 1978 that the man was able to transform a small cigarette filter manufacturing plant into an empire of 33 companies with total assets amounting to some $200 million in just six years. The companies were engaged in oil exploration, mining, textile manufacturing, and charter flights, among others. The empire was said to have peaked at $1 billion in total assets—then and now a mind-blowing sum.
And as though hewing to the hoary adage that money begets more money, Disini received $18 million in commissions for brokering the contract to build the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) for the American firm Westinghouse Electric Co. and its associate Burns & Roe. (The 620-megawatt BNPP is, of course, the nation’s white elephant, built at a cost of $2.3 billion from the initial bid of $600 million—somewhat foreshadowing such commission-padded contracts as that involving the controversial $329-million NBN-ZTE deal, which then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo scuttled before it got too scandalous. Marcos awarded the contract to Westinghouse despite the misgivings of certain of his officials, who had said the turnkey proposal would put the Philippine government at a gross disadvantage. In all, the payments, including interest, on the BNPP loan amounted to $2.8 billion and were completed by taxpayers through the Philippine government only in 2007.) Now, in an April 11 ruling issued 26 long years after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, and after a trial that proceeded in fits and starts, the Sandiganbayan’s first division has ordered Disini to surrender the “ill-gotten” commissions now totaling $50.6 million to the government.
A case of the long arm of the law finally catching up with the money whiz? Not exactly. Disini has been unheard from since late December 2009, when he was seeking permission from the antigraft court to travel to Singapore and Austria on Jan. 12-21, 2010, for business and health reasons. Then 73, he was known to have bought a castle complete with a royal title in Austria—not too farfetched an idea given his fabled fortune—and was actually holding an Austrian passport. A month earlier, he was allowed to travel to the same countries over the objection of the prosecution that he was a flight risk, and returned to the Philippines shortly before he again filed a request to travel. Unless he has been living very quietly since then, not even coming up for air, as it were, it looks like he has flown the coop.
Here’s another case (actually Civil Case No. 0013 that the Presidential Commission on Good Government filed in 1987 against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, among others) of the wheels of justice grinding ever so slowly that rust has settled firmly in the grooves. If Disini is not found and compelled to surrender the money, what then? As it is, despite the Sandiganbayan’s finding that Marcos had a “personal financial interest” in the BNPP contract to the extent of “micromanaging” it, the court found “no preponderant evidence” that the then first couple had any share in the commissions that were said to have gone to the companies co-owned by Disini and the dictator. No kidding.
There were criminal charges of graft and bribery brought against Disini, which were thrice dismissed in 1997 by then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto purportedly for lack of evidence. The PCGG turned to the Supreme Court, which ordered the filing of the charges. The Sandiganbayan eventually ordered Disini’s arrest in 2004, and he posted bail of P54,000. With such picayune amounts are billionaire hustlers able to squirm out of a bind.
Twenty-six years after the Marcoses were toppled from power, all the weary observer can think of in terms of restitution is the paltry compensation distributed to some of the victims of human rights abuse during martial law. It pains to remember that then President Corazon Aquino, ignoring her tremendous political capital that would have moved mountains, rejected the idea of seeking debt condonation and insisted on paying even the fraudulent loans incurred by the Marcos regime. The interest payments alone for the BNPP contract that Disini had pulled off were made to the tune of $300,000 a day.
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