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Operation Big Bird redux

When Presidential Commission on Good Government Chairman Dean Andy Bautista said that the search for the ill-gotten, hidden wealth of the late strongman, Ferdinand E. Marcos, insofar as the PCGG was concerned was a case of diminishing returns, I remembered the aborted Operation Big Bird during the Cory Aquino administration. I was privy to that operation.  I was then vice president of Credit Manila whose chairman/ president was investment banker Michael de Guzman. De Guzman was the architect of Operation Big Bird. The operation was an attempt of the Philippine government, during the Cory Aquino administration, to recover the alleged $7.6 billion of hidden accounts and assets of the late President Marcos and his family in many banking institutions worldwide.  These places were Switzerland, Liechtenstein (for foundations), Austria, Cayman Islands, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), United Kingdom, Hong Kong, United States, Panama (for trust companies and real estate), Monaco, Bahamas, Vatican City and Netherlands (for real estate in New York). All allegedly were in the name of Ferdinand E. Marcos, alias William Saunders, and Imelda R. Marcos, alias Jane Ryan. To achieve what Operation Big Bird was supposed to do, De Guzman made acquittance with Victor Bou Dagher, a Lebanese national residing in Austria, who had some connections with the European banking network. De Guzman later introduced Dagher to retired Brig. Gen. Jose Almonte, who was part of the scheme. Another member of the De Guzman OBB was Charlie Avila, a  former mayor. De Guzman did not know the late President Marcos, who was then exiled to Hawaii with Imelda. It was former Presidential Security Group head Col. Erwin Ver, son the late Fabian Ver, who managed to introduce De Guzman to the late President. De Guzman, in a meeting with the late President managed to convince the latter to execute a power of attorney for De Guzman and company to withdraw dollars from Credit Suisse through Marcos’ Swiss lawyer. Prior to this De Guzman had opened a bank in Vienna called Exportfinanzierungsbank GmbH, through which whatever accounts would be withdrawn would pass. Why? Simply because De Guzman had expected to earn 20 percent of whatever Marcos accounts would be withdrawn.  He had been spending his own money going back and forth from Manila to Europe to establish connections. Dagher also wanted to be compensated, naturally. Using the Marcos power of attorney, De Guzman and Almonte were able to identify US$213 million of Marcos’ accounts. Operation Big Bird was a touch-and-go thing for sometime because of the fact that the Cory Aquino government had ordered, in the meantime, the Marcos Swiss banks accounts frozen. However, soon enough, the Swiss banks and authorities relented and approved the withdrawal of the US$213 million. Because of the freezing of the Marcos accounts, De Guzman and Almonte had to return to Manila to have Cory Aquino continue with the OBB. They had to go through Peping and Pedro Cojuangco, brothers of the late President. They also had to get the approval of then-PCGG Chairman Jovito Salonga who hesitated for a while, suspicious of De Guzman’s intentions. Then-Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo also hesitated in giving them to the go-signal to see Cory Aquino. But, in the end it was a go for OBB. To avoid suspicion that De Guzman would pocket the money, he made Almonte, the late Solicitor General Sefrey Ordoñez, whose signature was required for the withdrawal as representative of the Philippine government, and the late Ambassador to Moscow and former Executive Secretary to Marcos, Alex Melchor as directors of De Guzman Vienna Bank. To make a long story short, Ordoñez was suddenly told by Salonga to return to Manila on the afternoon when his presence was required for the withdrawal of the money. Just why, it was not known.  Later on it was found out that Salonga thought the Operation Big Bird was a sting operation. This fiasco was later on relayed to Marcos, who revoked his power of attorney. De Guzman and Almonte rushed back to Manila to try to convince Cory Aquino that the withdrawal could still be done, but it was too late. When the House of Representatives investigated the Operation Big Bird which made headlines then, it was shown that it was a big fiasco since the first withdrawal of the Marcos accounts could have started other withdrawals. Santa Banana, then-Vice President Doy Laurel even considered it the biggest mistake of the Cory Aquino government. Congress hearings also showed that contrary to the fears of Salonga et al that Operation Big Bird was a sting operation, Ordoñez himself was director of the De Guzman Vienna bank through which the money would go before finally claimed by the Philippine government. I was later on sought by the House chairman on public accountability Concoy Chavez, then Rep. Dante Tinga, who later on became Supreme Court justice, and the late former Deputy Prime Minister Peping Roño for the details of OBB since I ran a series on it at the Manila Standard. Our meeting was at the Manila Peninsula lobby. Chavez, Tinga and Roño then went on to Geneva and Zurich on a fact-finding mission on the operation and why it failed. When they came back, they made a report to then Speaker, the late Monching Mitra, who later on had it archived.  It was an election year and Mitra did not want Cory Aquino to take the blame for the fiasco. This is the story of the Operation Big Bird fiasco, which could have started the recovery of the Marcos wealth. I can understand why Bautista wants the eventual abolition of the commission, with the Department of Justice taking over its functions. For so long, the PCGG had spent millions of the people’s money to go after the Marcos wealth, only to be disappointed in the end. While to a certain degree the PCGG had succeeded to secure the Marcos wealth and transferred it to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program as mandated by law, it has come to a point where the government was spending more money than it could recover.
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