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Businessmen tell of Marcoses' U.S. real estate

By ELIOT BRENNER

WASHINGTON -- Associates of Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, told two U.S. businessmen the couple owns valuable real estate in Manhattan, according to testimony before a House subcommittee.

The two businessmen testified at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, headed by Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., that is investigating allegations that the Marcoses own property in the United States. The hearing is conclude next Wednesday.

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It is not illegal for foreign nationals to own U.S. property, but Solarz maintains any U.S. investments by the Marcos family raises serious questions about the U.S. foreign aid program to the impoverished Pacific nation.

The properties at issue Thursday were the Crown Building, 40 Wall Street, 200 Madison Avenue and the Herald Center. Marcos has denied owning property in New York.

Thursday's testimony indirectly linked the four properties and a Long Island estate to the Marcos family. The properties, purchased for between $200 million and $260 million, are now estimated to be worth about $350 million. The four commercial properties are back on the market.

New York lawyer Barry Knox, who also advises foreigners seeking to invest in the United States, said he attended three meetings with Mrs. Marcos, two New York real estate managers, and Mrs. Gliceria Tantoco - wife of the Philippine ambassador to the Vatican -- at which the four properties were discussed.

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At some meetings, he said, Mrs. Marcos appeared to be acting as a potential investor but at the final meeting 'acted more like an owner than she had at the previous two' meetings.'

He said Mrs. Tantoco and one of the men at the meeting, Joseph Bernstein, told him Mrs. Marcos owned the properties.

Knox also said Mrs. Tantoco 'desired to keep the ownership as confidential as possible.'

California mortgage banker Harry Bullock, whose firm lent money on three of the four commercial properties, said Bernstein told him the owners were at 'the very top' of the Philippine government and he 'pretty much concluded he was speaking directly of President Marcos' and of Mrs. Marcos.

Knox also described an elaborate code used to transmit messages to Mrs. Tantoco in the Philippines about the properties. Mrs. Tantoco's brother-in-law, New York businessman Hector Tantoco, whose office was used to send the messages, could not identify who 'excellencio' was in the messages.

Tantoco also said his sister-in-law told him, ''You don't need to know,'' who owned the properties.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has voted to seek contempt citations against Bernstein and his brother, Ralph, for refusing to answer questions on the matter.

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Solarz conceded he has not produced any papers directly linking the Marcos family to the properties and that he is unlikely to find any.

The properties are listed in the names of several offshore corporations, although some of the taxes on a $19 million Long Island estate were paid by a woman described in testimony as Mrs. Marcos' secretary.

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