WASHINGTON -- A New York real estate agent who represented Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos testified Wednesday that they own four Manhattan properties worth $316 million, providing the first direct evidence of their secret investments.
Joseph Bernstein, who was cited for contempt of Congress in February for refusing to testify, also told a House subcommittee that the deposed Philippines president and his wife held a $120 million Swiss bank account and bought $6 million worth of antiques.
Bernstein's testimony 'removed whatever lingering doubts remained that the Marcoses owned some of the most prestigious property in Manhattan,' said Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Marcos purchased the four buildings -- identified by Bernstein as the Crown Building, the Herald Center, a third building on Wall Street and a fourth on Madison Avenue -- through two tiers of foreign-based companies to mask his identity and gain tax advantages, John Cronin of the General Accounting Office told the panel.
Marcos 'used a complicated web of offshore corporations to hide the identity of the owners,' Cronin said.
Marcos may have violated the foreign exchange laws of the Philippines, which require that overseas transactions for more than $5,000 in foreign exchange be approved by the central bank of that country, Solarz said.
The current Philippines government is trying to recover the Marcoses' wealth, estimated at between $5 billion and $10 billion, which it said was improperly obtained.
The offshore companies through which Marcos purchased the New York properties may have violated a Commerce Department law by failing to disclose the nationality of the actual property owners, Solarz said. These companies are based in Panama, the Netherlands Antilles and the British Virgin Islands, Bernstein said.
The New York law firm of Rogers & Wells formed the Lastura Corp. of the Netherlands Antilles to serve as the 'acquisition vehicle' for one building in 1981, a lawyer with the firm said in a sworn statement released at the hearing.
The firm, one of whose partners is former Secretary of State William Rogers, did not know Marcos was involved in the purchase, said lawyer Peter Williams.
Bernstein and his brother, Ralph, who also testified, apparently decided to appear to avert possible imprisonment, a Solarz aide said.
A federal grand jury launched an investigation of the Bernsteins after Congress slapped them with a contempt citation. If tried and found guilty, they face maximum sentences of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, although the case against them or any resulting sentence could be mitigated by their agreement to testify.
Joseph Bernstein told Solarz's panel that, after meeting with Marcos three times in the Philippines in 1981 and 1982, he signed agreements providing that he would serve as Marcos's trustee 'with respect to all matters relating' to the Lastura Corp. in the Netherlands Antilles and Beneficio Investment Inc. of Panama, also a part-owner of a New York property.
The Marcoses attempted to sell the buildings in 1985, but were foiled when Solarz called a hearing in December to explore the holdings, Joseph Bernstein said.
He said that at one of a half-dozen meetings with Imelda Marcos between 1981 and 1984, she waved a statement from Banque Paribas (Suisse) S.A., a Swiss bank, showing she had an account worth about $120 million.
The Bernsteins' company also arranged a purchase of $6 million worth of antiques for Imelda Marcos. These antiques were kept at one of the four Manhattan properties, Joseph Bernstein testified.