FRESNO, Calif. -- A top Philippine government official, charged in civil suits with plundering millions from the Philippines treasury, arranged the financing for a golf course and housing project being built near Fresno, a spokeswoman for the project said Thursday.
But the spokeswoman, Sandra Kowallis, said Roberto 'Bobby' Ongpin, who was minister of trade and industry under ousted President Ferdinand Marcos, has not personally invested any of his own money in the project, called Brighton Crest.
Real estate and legal sources have said Ongpin and other unidentified investors may have poured at least $14 million into the project. Until Thursday night, Brighton Crest officials had refused to disclose the identity of its backers and had declined to detail Ongpin's involvement.
Kowallis said the major foreign investor in the project is the Chua Nai-Tuen family, which controls Southeast Asia Properties and Finance Ltd. of Hong Kong.
'Ongpin was engaged as an investment consultant to the project with the objective of identifying Hong Kong investors for the project, which he did,' Kowallis said. 'Ongpin himself has not invested any of his own funds in this project, nor has he provided any financing to it from his own resources.'
Ongpin served between 1981 and 1986, a period when accusations were leveled that government corporations and private businesses controlled by Marcos officials, family members and friends were siphoning off billions of dollars in public funds and international loans.
Ongpin, who left the Philippines government after Marcos fled on Feb. 25, 1986, is charged in four separate anti-graft civil suits filed in 1987 by Philippine President Corazon Aquino's Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).
Three of the suits allege that Ongpin, while a government official, authorized loans of public funds to Marcos-controlled corporations.
These loans proved 'clearly disadvantageous' to the public, Roman Del Rosario, a lawyer for the PCGG, said in an interview. 'Substantial sums of money are involved.'
The fourth suit accuses Marcos, Ongpin and Marcos's armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, of organizing a group of financiers known as the Binondo Central Bank, 'which engaged in the buying of millions of U.S. dollars and bringing the same out of the country for deposit in foreign banks, thereby obtaining millions of dollars for themselves.'
Ver was a key suspect in the 1983 assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino. Cleared in a 1985 court trial that Marcos opponents called rigged, Ver is now believed in hiding in North Africa. Marcos is critically ill in Hawaii.
Kowallis said the suits pending against Ongpin are 'clearly politically motivated.'
Ongpin's former deputy in the Marcos government, Jose P. Leviste Jr., along with two Fresno developers, brothers A.B. 'Ben' Ewell Jr. and Rolland 'Dan' Ewell, along with planner Jeff Roberts, are the local promoters of the Brighton Crest golf course. Ben Ewell is a prominent Fresno water lawyer.
Also involved, according to public records, is Ongpin's lawyer, Enrique Teehankee of Manila, who heads a recently created corporation that raised $13 million in cash for the project.
Situated near Millerton Lake on the San Joaquin River about 20 miles northeast of Fresno, the complex is to feature a private golf course, 320 luxury homes and 100 condominium units.
'Ongpin has been in Fresno several times. He has met with Ben Ewell in his office,' said a real estate source, who added that Leviste got the former Marcos official interested in the golf course project in 1987.
Leviste, who lives in Fresno, and the Ewell brothers refused requests for interviews.
Roberts confirmed that he knows Ongpin but then refused to discuss Ongpin's role or that of Chinese-Filipino banker Ralph Nubla Sr. of Manila, a member of Marcos's inner circle of advisors also said to be an investor in the project.