By David Grogan
March 24, 1986 12:00 PM

Nearly 15 years ago Jovito Salonga, then a Liberal Party candidate for the Philippine Senate, mounted a stage at Manila’s Plaza Miranda armed with allegations of vote fraud by President Ferdinand Marcos in a previous election. As Salonga prepared to address the crowd of 4,000, two fragmentation hand grenades arced out of the crowd and exploded, killing nine spectators huddled around the speaker’s platform. His arms and legs hanging limply and a gaping hole opened in his chest, Salonga was carried off with seven other anti-Marcos senatorial candidates, all of whom had been seriously wounded. “I was clinically dead on my arrival at the hospital,” says Salonga. “I had no blood pressure. I had one hundred pieces of shrapnel in my body. One piece was lodged just one millimeter away from my aorta.”

President Marcos blamed the bombing on communists. Meanwhile doctors gave Salonga less than a five percent chance of surviving. He lay in a coma for a week, his wife, Lydia, keeping a vigil by his side. “When he came to, he asked me, ‘Am I going to live?’ ” Lydia recalls. “Then I had to rush from the room so he wouldn’t see me cry.”

Salonga, a tiny and frail man at 65, is blind in his left eye, deaf in his right ear and missing parts of several fingers as a result of the Plaza Miranda bombing. But the injuries only increased his bulldog determination, and his long fight against corruption in the Marcos government is paying off in spectacular fashion. Evidence is slowly revealing that during the past 20 years Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their cronies spirited perhaps as much as $30 billion out of the country—a figure that would exceed the total Philippine national debt. And Salonga, a somber lawyer with a squeaky-clean reputation, has been appointed by President Corazon Aquino to head the new Commission on Good Government charged with recovering the plundered wealth. “Jovito has integrity and credibility,” says Aquino. “He is the person who will render to the Filipino people what is their due.”

The long trail that Salonga is following begins in Manila’s Malacañang Palace. Marcos is gone, but an odor of illness and disinfectant still permeates the lavish 100-room building. In a dark-paneled chamber, equipped with portable anesthesia and oxygen units, is an abandoned Handbook for Renal Transplant Patients, and a scummy half-filled glass of water containing a forgotten set of Marcos’ false teeth rests in his bathroom. Surveying the scene, Salonga shakes his head in pity for a longtime adversary. Elsewhere, however, the evidence of personal greed is appalling. In a secret safe in Imelda Marcos’ suite, there are strands of freshwater pearls, a grocery-size carton of beaded turquoise necklaces, miniature standing trees carved out of semiprecious stones, hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, and a reported $50,000 worth of gold coins. Stored in the basement are hundreds of silk dresses, five shelves of Gucci handbags with prices still attached, and about 3,000 pairs of shoes bearing such labels as Charles Jourdan, Ungaro and Beltrami.

All these are minor household effects that the Marcoses could not pack in time for their departure. When they flew to Hawaii accompanied by 89 family members, aides and servants, each member of the party is said to have been carrying $10,000 in pesos. In addition, the C-141 transport jet was reportedly loaded with 50 pounds of gold bullion valued at $270,000. All told, customs officials estimated that there was $5 million to $10 million in jewelry aboard the plane. Then a second C-141 landed with 22 crates containing 26 million newly minted pesos worth about $1.2 million.

Faced with the extravagance of it all, Salonga displays a deeply hidden penchant for black humor. “How do you do the Marcos dance?” he asks, repeating a joke that was common during martial law. “You take one step forward and two kickbacks.”

The size of the alleged bribes, already enormous, became truly staggering after Marcos declared martial law in 1972. With a system dubbed “crony capitalism,” he awarded monopolies to a small circle of friends for such vital exports as coconuts, sugar and bananas and such industries as pharmaceuticals, shipping and construction. Marcos reportedly took a substantial cut of such businesses for himself. He arm-twisted government-run banks to grant, and even guarantee, business loans to his cronies. “There was no longer any distinction between public funds and private wealth,” says Salonga. “He was a dictator, and his word was law.”

For Salonga, the real clues to recovering the vast treasure plundered from the Philippines lie not in the conspicuous consumption of the former First Family. Rather, for years, critics say, the true extent of Marcos wealth has been hidden in a labyrinthine paper trail of worldwide investments made through a network of front men and corporations in out of the way places such as Curaçao. But in their rush to leave Manila, the Marcoses apparently failed to cover their tracks completely.

Left behind in Malacañang Palace and elsewhere were several documents reportedly linking the Marcoses to $350 million in New York real estate, including the Herald Center, a nine-story Manhattan shopping mall; the Crown Building, a Fifth Avenue office building decorated with gold leaf; office buildings at 40 Wall Street and 200 Madison Avenue; and the Lindenmere estate, a 13.7-acre waterfront compound on Long Island. “We have what is called the smoking-gun evidence,” Salonga has said. “They will connect Marcos directly to the property.”

But the biggest treasure trove may be sheaves of documents that were brought to Hawaii by the Marcoses. Lawyers representing the Aquino government in the U.S. believe these papers could detail not only the size of the Marcos fortune worldwide, but also how it was acquired. Through diplomatic channels, Aquino has asked for a full inventory of the documents, but the Reagan Administration will undoubtedly defer the matter to the courts. Anticipating a long legal battle, Salonga makes no effort to conceal his frustration. “My God, it seems incongruous to me that customs officials in Honolulu have access to these documents, and yet the Philippine government does not,” he says. “What made it possible for Marcos to rule this country for 20 years was the impact of American backing. As Bishop Desmond Tutu said when he testified before Congress, ‘Your policy is evil, immoral and totally unchristian.’ ”

From a man more inclined to dry legalisms than broadsides, such a bald indictment is uncharacteristic. At the same time, it clearly reveals his lifelong identification with the Filipino downtrodden. The youngest of five sons of a Presbyterian minister who depended on handouts from a poor congregation in a small town outside Manila, Salonga earned money to attend high school by toting water from the village well to the townspeople. In 1936 he took jobs as a janitor and a clerk to work his way through a six-year law program at the University of the Philippines. When war broke out during his senior year, Salonga was jailed by occupying Japanese forces for editing a resistance newspaper. He was kicked in the face and beaten while his father was forced to squat on the floor and watch.

Repeatedly tortured during 10 months of prison, Salonga was finally released on Feb. 11, 1943. A year later he scored higher than anyone else on the Philippine bar exam and made plans to attend Harvard. In 1946, aboard a ship bound for the United States, he met his future wife, Lydia Busuego. “He was very honest and very faithful, but after the war he was so very thin,” she says. Salonga’s legal brilliance earned him a 1948 master’s from Harvard and a doctorate from Harvard in 1949. He was offered a faculty position at Yale but turned it down. “The Philippines were still recovering from the war,” Salonga says. “I felt I should take part in the task of nation building.”

Salonga served as dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law and wrote five books on his specialty before being elected to the Philippine Congress in 1961. Developing a reputation as a straight arrow with a talent for spotting funny money deals, he quickly found himself at odds with the Marcos machine. In 1967, as a member of the Philippine Senate, Salonga accused Marcos of receiving cash to grease the wheels of government for Japanese businessmen. The following year Salonga pointed a finger at Marcos and his cronies for a scam involving a dummy corporation trading Philippine stocks out of the Bahamas. In both cases the charges against Marcos did not stick, but Salonga had earned himself a lifelong enemy.

After the Plaza Miranda bombing, Salonga campaigned successfully from his hospital bed for reelection to the Senate. But his term of office abruptly ended when Marcos imposed martial law. Still, Salonga refused to be silenced. Between 1972 and 1980 he worked defending political prisoners who challenged the Marcos regime. His most prominent client was Benigno Aquino, who was jailed for seven years and seven months before leaving for the U.S. in 1980.

Six months later Marcos moved against Salonga, charging him with complicity in a bombing that killed two people during an American Society of Travel Agents convention in Manila. Though he argued he was the victim of a “McCarthy-like witch-hunt,” Salonga was held under military guard at a Manila hospital, where he was being treated for chronic asthma, and later transferred to the prison cell vacated by Benigno Aquino.

Choosing exile to the U.S. after 37 days of imprisonment, Salonga followed in Aquino’s footsteps again when he returned to the Philippines in January 1985. Faced with a growing scandal in the wake of the Aquino assassination, Marcos moved to drop subversion charges against Salonga two days before his homecoming. Arriving at Manila International Airport, Salonga served notice that he was prepared to raise his voice loudly in opposition to the government. Addressing a crowd of jubilant supporters, he said, “We cannot and do not deserve freedom unless we are prepared to fight for it, to suffer for it and, if necessary, to die for it.”

Scarcely a year later Marcos himself is in exile, holed up in Hawaii with some of his more notorious pals. One of those with Marcos is Eduardo Cojuangco, the “King of Coconuts,” who reportedly supported a private army of 6,000 and whose business dealings with Marcos are estimated to have netted the men $500 million a year. Another is General Fabian Ver, indicted and later cleared of conspiracy in the murder of Benigno Aquino. Ver has been mentioned in a federal grand jury probe of the possible theft of millions in American military aid to the Philippines.

More surely will be heard from the patient Salonga as the investigations continue. With dozens of pieces of shrapnel still imbedded in his body, Salonga might have reason for bitterness. But he claims that is all behind him. “To this day the Plaza Miranda bombing has not been solved,” says Salonga. “I have my suspicions, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We have our freedom, and we have justice now.”