The pundits on CNN’s “Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” were unanimous: Republican campaign strategist Ed Rollins was a great guy and his hiring as national chairman for Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign gave it a solid jolt of credibility.
Rollins, who ran Reagan’s reelection campaign, mentioned the admission in his 1996 book, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, recounting how the Filipino casually asserted over drinks that he had carried the money in a suitcase to a Republican lobbyist who was representing the Reagan campaign.
"I was the guy who gave the ten million from Marcos to your campaign," the Filipino told Rollins. "I was the guy who made the arrangements and delivered the cash personally. ...It was a personal gift from Marcos to Reagan."
In his book, Rollins described this stunning news with a light touch. The first thought that raced through his head, he wrote, was "Cash? Holy shit."
However, Rollins has refused since to divulge the name of either the Filipino politician or the Republican lobbyist. And it speaks volumes of the mood during the mid-1990s – when Ronald Reagan’s legacy was taking on mythic status – that no one pressed Rollins for details of this crime.
Also, that Rollins could drop this tidbit into his memoir, go mum on identifying the direct participants, and still remain a universally respected Washington insider says a lot about the morality of today’s political establishment.
In his memoir, Rollins tried to minimize the significance of the suitcase full of cash by suggesting that the illegal contribution might never have reached the campaign or President Reagan. "I knew the lobbyist well and I had no doubt the money was now in some offshore bank," Rollins wrote.
But Rollins had no way to know for sure – and it would have been a very risky move for the lobbyist to divert $10 million in cash that Marcos was sending personally to Reagan, especially since the lobbyist would have to assume that Marcos had told Reagan that the money was on the way.
There also was a history to the allegations of Marcos-Reagan payoffs.
The Marcos-Reagan relationship dated back at least to 1969 when President Richard Nixon assigned Reagan to represent the United States at the gala opening of Imelda Marcos's multi-million-dollar cultural center in Manila.
Reagan charmed the Philippine president and his wife. The former Hollywood movie actor twirled Mrs. Marcos around the dance floor.
By 1980, Marcos had another reason to root for a Reagan presidency. Marcos was weary of President Jimmy Carter's nagging about human rights violations in the Philippines. Marcos also was unnerved by Carter's inability to protect another friendly despot, the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979 and forced into a humiliating exile.
If Reagan were to defeat Carter, Marcos could expect that the human rights lectures would stop and U.S. officials would look the other way when it came to Marcos's staggering corruption.
Carter’s reelection campaign also was hobbled by his inability to free 52 American hostages then held by radicals in Iran, a crisis that opened the door to Reagan's landslide victory.
In the years since, some witnesses have claimed that Marcos put up money to support a covert Republican operation to contact Iranian authorities behind Carter’s back and to bribe them into delaying release of the hostages until after the November 1980 election.
Documentary evidence of a Marcos-to-Reagan payoff in 1980 first surfaced after Marcos was ousted by a popular revolution in March 1986.
As Marcos's fall neared, Reagan arranged for the dictator to be flown to safety in Hawaii. After Marcos left, his opponents ransacked government files and found a Feb. 17, 1986, letter signed by a senior Marcos aide, Victor Nituda.
In the letter, Nituda told Marcos that Reagan's emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nevada, was demanding that sensitive files, including ones listing the 1980 transactions, be turned over before Marcos could go to Hawaii.
Nituda's letter specifically cited accounts set up for Reagan and his 1980 campaign manager William J. Casey, who became Reagan’s CIA director in 1981. Laxalt had served as Reagan’s campaign chairman in 1980.
Laxalt "expects all documents checklisted during his last visit or the deal [for a Hawaiian exile] is off," Nituda wrote. The first two documents listed were "1980-SEC-014: Funds to Casey" and "1980-SEC-015: Reagan Funds Not Used."
In a follow-up letter three days later, Nituda added, "we urgently need to fly the last batch to Clark [Air Force base] soonest. [National security adviser William] Clark and [Reagan chief of staff Michael] Deaver are not happy with what we've sent them so far."
Nituda wrote that Laxalt wanted files from 1984, too, including papers on bank loans and Marcos's "donations to Gen. [John] Singlaub" who then was raising secret funds for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
For years, Laxalt's spokesmen have denied that the senator had any discussions with Marcos about the information referenced in the Nituda letter. In an interview in 1996, Deaver also told me that he has no idea what Nituda was writing about.
But there was evidence supporting the Nituda account. During his Hawaiian exile, Marcos said he gave Reagan $4 million in 1980 and $8 million in 1984, in an admission to Republican lawyer Richard Hirschfeld, who secretly tape-recorded the conversation.
Hirschfeld turned part of the tape over to Congress. But the core allegations – that President Reagan had received illegal pay-offs from a foreign dictator – were never seriously explored. Marcos died in exile in 1989.
Though making no reference to this history, the Rollins book adds further corroboration that Marcos did make large payments to Reagan. Rollins wrote that he asked Laxalt about the $10 million payment when the two men were alone at cabins they owned in Front Royal, Virginia.
"Paul absorbed the story with increasing interest," Rollins wrote, then quoting Laxalt as declaring. "Christ, now it all makes sense. When I was over there cutting off Marcos's nuts, he gave me a hard time. ‘How can you do this?’ he kept saying to me. ‘I gave Reagan ten million dollars. How can he do this to me?’ I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Now I get it."
Though clearly self-serving and quite likely disingenuous, Laxalt's comment confirmed that he and Marcos discussed the alleged payoffs to Reagan. That contradicted the earlier denials from Laxalt's aides that the topic never arose.
But it seems more likely that Laxalt, who was one of Reagan's closest advisers, knew exactly what Marcos meant.
Hirschfeld also dangled hints that he possessed bank records showing where many of the Marcos accounts were located and documenting how much money went to Reagan and to other Republicans. Yet, when I spoke with Hirschfeld who was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, he refused to release any documentary evidence voluntarily.
In the mid-1990s, when Rollins's book was published, the national press corps was absorbed with a host of “Clinton scandals” involving his personal finances and his marital indiscretions. So there was no appetite to revisit unresolved mysteries of the 1980s, especially ones that might put the well-liked Ronald Reagan in a negative light.
It didn’t seem to matter much that President Reagan might have been taking secret payoffs from a foreign despot or that the dictator's money might have been used to influence the outcome of the 1980 election by extending the captivity of 52 Americans held by a hostile state.
An investigation of the Marcos money might have shed light, too, on another perplexing mystery from the 1980s: the curious relationship between the U.S. government and the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
On Jan. 22, 1981, two days after Reagan's Inauguration, Marcos and some cronies co-founded a Hong Kong bank in partnership with New York financier John Shaheen, one of Casey's closest friends dating back to their days together in the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services.
Called the Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty, the bank was capitalized with $20 million supplied by Princess Ashraf, the Shah of Iran's strong-willed twin sister who shared Marcos’s intense hatred of President Carter.
The bank attracted onto its board leading BCCI figures, including Abu Dhabi's Ghanim al-Mazrouie and Saudi diplomat Hassan Yassin, the cousin of Iran-Contra figure and Saudi financier Adnan Khashoggi.
In 1983, the Hong Kong bank collapsed with reported losses of more than $100 million. The money was never recovered, but Shaheen associates claimed that prior to the bank’s failure, substantial amounts were funneled to Marcos, who reportedly was pulling the strings behind the scenes.
The Hong Kong bank might have been a missing link in the intelligence mysteries of the 1980s, connecting the early Reagan-Iran deals with key BCCI players. It also could explain how Marcos was repaid for his alleged 1980 largesse and why he would be even more generous in 1984. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In a normal political/media world, there would have been a clamor about the alleged payoffs to Reagan as well as demands that Rollins be put under oath before government investigators who would demand to know the names of both the Filipino with the suitcase and the Republican lobbyist. Then, they, too, would have been interrogated.
The government also would have forced Hirschfeld to turn over whatever evidence he had on the mysterious bank accounts.
But none of that happened. Instead, the remarkable admissions in the Rollins book were quietly swept under the rug and Rollins remained a respected member of the Washington political fraternity.
Now, Rollins has reemerged as the national chairman for the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, who is fast rising to the top of the GOP field.
With the story of the $10 million Marcos-to-Reagan payoff long since forgotten, Rollins can expect to appear on TV news shows as a respected spokesman for the Huckabee campaign, with Wolf Blitzer and other pundits praising Rollins for his good-natured integrity.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.