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Philippines' presidential election resurfaces old scandal

MILES PARKS, HOST:

New intrigue over an old dispute could shake up the presidential race in the Philippines just weeks before the vote. It's emerged that the clear front-runner in the race, Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr., has, for decades, failed to pay taxes on the estate of his late father, the country's former dictator. NPR's Julie McCarthy has that story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: When Ferdinand Marcos Sr. died in 1989, three years after his fellow citizens ousted him, Bongbong Marcos and his mother, Imelda Marcos, became the administrators of the estate. The Philippine Supreme Court said the tax bill, final and unappealable was 23 billion pesos - approximately $445 million. It's lain unpaid ever since.

ANTONIO CARPIO: That was almost a quarter of a century ago.

MCCARTHY: That's retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio. He's calculated what the tax authorities won't divulge. With penalties, Carpio says the taxes would have ballooned to some $3.9 billion, a figure that's taken even tax specialists aback.

CARPIO: We were surprised as well, as much as the whole world is right now, that it remains delinquent, that it was not yet settled.

MCCARTHY: Tax expert Mon Abrea says simple math would have pushed the bill into the stratosphere. Twenty percent interest is slapped on every year the tax is left unpaid. Justice Carpio says the passage of so much time makes a case against the heirs, especially Marcos Jr., of willful refusal to pay. He says there's a remedy for that.

MON ABREA: The penalty is one to 10 years imprisonment. He can go to jail. And it can still be done now because he's not the president of the country. He has no immunity yet.

MCCARTHY: The chairman of the Bureau of Internal Revenue has confirmed that authorities notified the Marcos heirs as recently as four months ago of their tax obligation. The unpaid tax has animated the presidential race, where Bongbong Marcos is the front-runner. Justice Carpio backs his chief rival for the job, Vice President Leni Robredo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT LENI ROBREDO: Just imagine (non-English language spoken) somebody...

MCCARTHY: Can you imagine, she chided after a recent debate, aspiring to be president, having this huge debt? But he gets away with it, she says, using disinformation and propaganda. In fact, Marcos dismissed the tax claims, suggesting they were little more than fake news. The Marcos family has long employed legal advisers to shield them from controversy. Former Internal Revenue Bureau chairman Kim Henares told NPR she decided not to criminally pursue Marcos heirs to avoid her office being overrun by challenges from Marcos attorneys. I asked Mon Abrea how much of this has to do with the power of the Marcoses to manipulate events.

ABREA: We really don't know how much power they have, but obviously, they're not like us ordinary Filipinos because we commit a - violate the law, we either go to jail or pay the penalty straightaway. But they continue to enjoy their power.

MCCARTHY: Abrea and others say if Marcos is elected, it's expected he will find a way to make his family's tax obligation disappear. Euphamia Doringo, 46, works on behalf of the urban poor who have been buffeted by the pandemic and now soaring fuel prices. There's no better time, she says, for Marcos to pay his debt.

EUPHAMIA DORINGO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: How can an official gain the public trust if he can't even pay taxes? It blatantly degrades the nation, she says. And besides, Doringo adds, that money could be used to help the poor. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANCHOA'S "GYM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.