A federal appeals court Friday criticized U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real for his handling of $33.8 million entrusted to him for victims of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, calling his accounting "curious" and "filled with cryptic notations" that failed to show what happened to the money.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new accounting of the disputed assets by a different judge -- a rare act of implied censure that Real has now endured at least 11 times in his long judicial career.
Real, 85, was entrusted with the money while federal courts sorted out the rightful heirs from among rival claimants that include the Manila government, the Philippine National Bank, the family of a dispossessed private businessman and 9,539 Filipinos claiming to have suffered human rights abuses during Marcos' 20-year reign. Marcos fled to Hawaii after a 1986 popular revolt and died there three years later.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that it should be up to the Philippines' courts to decide the rightful owners. The justices ordered Real to return the funds to a Merrill Lynch account in New York. Real made the transfer but gave the claimants only an indecipherable half-page accounting that suggested tens of millions in asset trades had been made. He has refused to provide more information to the parties or the appeals court.
"This curious statement plainly fails to account for all transactions involving the assets during the eight years they were held in the clerk of court's custody," said the 9th Circuit panel, which consisted of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Circuit Judges Dorothy W. Nelson and Kim McLane Wardlaw. "It doesn't give the reader even a basic understanding of the path by which $33.8 million worth of assets deposited in September of 2000 came to be worth $34.7 million today."
The multiparty appeal of Real's handling didn't allege wrongdoing; instead it raised concerns that proceeds hadn't been returned with the original sum. Some of the claimants suspect Real might have distributed profits to the abused Filipinos, for whom he found in a related 1995 trial and awarded $1.9 billion.
The 9th Circuit panel noted that two Supreme Court justices had earlier advised that the case be removed from Real for fear he lacked objectivity.
"The district judge's handling of the case on remand confirms the prescience of these views," the judges stated.