As it had been doing so often, the phone in Rafael G. Fernando's nondescript industrial building on the fringe of downtown Los Angeles rang again Friday. On the other end of the line was another rumor.
"This is a hot item," the caller said, and then read an address of an apartment building in the 1400 block of North Crescent Heights Boulevard that was supposed to have been purchased recently by Imelda Marcos, wife of deposed Philippines President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
It was just one more addition to a mountain of hazy tips that Fernando is trying to sift and check out these days. From his Filipino food import business, Fernando is serving as the Philippine government's West Coast representative in the mushrooming campaign to track down and reclaim wealth allegedly amassed by Marcos, his family and close associates.
In leaving the country he had ruled for 20 years, Marcos was besieged by accusations that he, his wife and other influential Filipinos had purchased billions of dollars of property throughout the world and invested billions more in foreign banks, badly draining the Philippine economy.
New President Corazon Aquino quickly appointed a Commission on Good Government to reclaim those assets. And the commission asked Fernando, a businessman in the United States for the last eight years, to act as a West Coast conduit for potential evidence that might bolster lawsuits the Philippine government plans to file against Marcos and his associates.
Both Fernando and Steve Psinakis, a San Francisco businessman who has devoted a decade to collecting information about Marcos' hidden wealth, said many people previously fearful of revealing their knowledge are coming forward with new tips.
"They are flooding in from all over the place, dozens by the day," Psinakis said.
"A lot of well-intentioned people want to help," Fernando added.
Some of them seemed to come out of left field. One rumor had it that Imelda Marcos has a financial interest in a $6-million Beverly Hills mansion owned by actor George Hamilton.
"We know of Filipino servants who are (talking) . . . ," Fernando said, fluttering his fingers and thumb to make a chattering gesture. "That's how we got the tip. The suspicion is that they (the Marcoses) own the property, and the fact that they are disposing of the property now is not a coincidence."
Hamilton's home, which was owned by Charlie Chaplin for 30 years, has been up for sale since last fall, according to Hamilton's realtor, June Scott. Scott said through a spokeswoman that county assessment records show Hamilton to be the owner. Hamilton said through a spokesman that while he has met Mrs. Marcos on several occasions, she has no financial interest in his home, which he purchased in 1975, four years before he first met her.
Claim Surrogates Used
Similarly, the caller who tipped off Fernando about the North Crescent Heights Boulevard building did not promise it was owned by Mrs. Marcos--merely by her or "a surrogate."
Confirming such rumors will be "easier said than done," Fernando acknowledged. "It will take years. One has to disabuse one's mind that you'll be able to get answers quickly. It is a Herculean task."
The biggest reason, according to those anti-Marcos activists who have tried to trace the flow of wealth out of the Philippines, is that the land ownership and investments have been carefully hidden behind surrogate or overseas corporations, or held in the name of trusted American lawyers or agents.
The effort to penetrate that maze has been going on for years in anticipation of the day that Marcos' regime would crumble, both Fernando and Psinakis said.
Working for 10 Years
"A very discreet group . . . has been doing this over a period of 10 years," said Psinakis, who is married to a Filipino woman and is the brother-in-law of a Philippine newspaper publisher whose newspaper was once outlawed by Marcos. "It was done with the intention of delivering the information to the first democratic government."
One of the targets of the asset-reclamation investigation is a man Fernando once worked for, Eduardo M. Cojuansco, the Philippines' "coconut king," reputed to be one of the country's wealthiest men and a longtime friend of Marcos.
Fernando came to the United States in 1977 to run a Japanese-Filipino joint venture company that was acquired two years later by one of Cojuansco's companies. Shortly thereafter, Fernando said, "I got into trouble" by siding with a movement to expose what foes of Cojuansco considered to be his monopolistic control of the country's coconut industry. After Corazon Aquino's husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino, was assassinated, Fernando became active in anti-Marcos forces in Los Angeles.
Fernando said he is committed to making sure that lawsuits to recover wealth are filed only when it can be documented that assets invested overseas were "ill-gotten. . . . We don't want to put on Mr. Marcos the conditions he put upon us."