EVERYONE LOVES A TREASURE hunt and a good yarn. Speculating on where the late Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos stashed millions in gold and cash provides both. The deposed dictator's narrative on how he secured his booty seems straight out of an adventure comic. During his lifetime, Marcos dismissed suggestions that his riches came from plundering the nation's coffers. He claimed he stumbled on a pot of gold in the jungle. The fortune, he maintained, was actually part of the mythical Yama-shita treasure buried by a Japanese general during his hasty retreat from the Philippines at the end of World War II.
Unlikely story, and perhaps irrelevant now. More important is tracking down what happened to the money after Marcos's flight from the Philippines in 1986. Some believe the fortune is deposited in Swiss banks. His widow, Imelda, says it is buried in the Philippines. The government has found only $356 million in accounts in two banks, Credit Suisse and Swiss Bank Corp., but so far none has been recovered. The rest, as much as $20 billion by one estimate, remains elusive.
Now comes the latest bizarre twist to the tale. Reiner Jacobi, an Australian fortune hunter once hired by the Philippine government to find the Marcos millions, says he has traced another $466 million. Jacobi produced a letter from a Dr. Peter Ritter-Jurus, a Swiss banker purported to be handling the money. The letter documents the sale of 1.1 million ounces of bullion and the laundering of the $466 million in proceeds through Swiss ac-counts in the name of the Philippine National Oil Co. and of a company called Marcan Inc. (Philippine National Oil denies any involvement.) The letter also implicates the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) -- sleuths chasing down the wealth -- and even President Fidel Ramos.
The allegations were brought to light by Robert Swift, an American lawyer fighting to collect from the Marcos estate $2 billion awarded four years ago by a Hawaii court to 9,539 human rights victims of his regime. In a bid to force the family to pay, Swift filed a case with a California court to prevent banks from transferring or dissipating Marcos's riches. Based on documents from Jacobi and Swift, the court granted a temporary restraining order in September freezing accounts allegedly tied to the Marcos clan in Standard Chartered Bank, Union Bank of Switzerland and Bank Julius Baer.
Jacobi's affidavit is being attacked from many sides. The day of the injunction, Dr. Peter Ritter, a lawyer and senior partner in Prasidial Anstalt, a Liechtenstein-based trust company that specializes in inheritance planning, denied writing the letter. "I have never used the name Ritter-Jurus. This document is not authentic and the signature -- presumably purporting to be mine -- is a forgery."
Ramos also called the letter a forgery and denied having an account with Bank Julius Baer, as the letter charges. The president, who is a second cousin to Marcos, says the letter is part of a "conspiracy of falsehood and fabrication" to weaken his influence in next May's presidential election. "It does not surprise me that the so-called Marcos ill-gotten wealth has again landed on the front pages and that I am being accused of having a secret bank account in Switzerland." His legal counsel has threatened to sue Swift for libel.
Swift insists he is not out to get Ramos, only compensation for the victims. "We have no political agenda and seek none." However, he accuses Manila of pressuring Ritter to change his story, and adds the PCGG, headed by Magtanggol Gunigundo, to the list of those in cahoots with the Marcoses. Gunigundo shot back: "Swift is the victim of a hoax. The government cannot be bamboozled by this character [Jacobi]." He claims Jacobi tried to blackmail the Philippine government into paying $50 million to keep the lid on the Ritter letter.
Filipino human rights lawyer and associate to Swift, Rene Saguisag, has a different version, asserting that Jacobi has worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. "He is not the type who would just pull a name from out of the blue and attribute certain statements to him that can easily be debunked the following day."
Clearly, facts are as elusive to come by as the money. When employed by the PCGG between 1988 and 1991, Jacobi says he uncovered information that Marcos had stashed 1,241 tons of gold at Zurich's Kloten airport. Swiss officials and the PCGG denied this was so. For this latest accusation, Jacobi thought he had proof. The alleged Ritter letter outlines the trustee's duties as controller of the Sandy Foundation, one of 11 such in Switzerland suspected of concealing Marcos money.
Of the bullion sale and its proceeds, the alleged Ritter letter states: "I find it disconcerting that the beneficiary is not my client [the Marcoses]." Who knows if they were or not. To determine anything close to the truth, Jacobi, Swift and other gold seekers will have to dig harder if they ever hope to stumble on the fabled Marcos treasure.