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Court of Appeals hears appeal from Imelda Marcos’ ex-secretary

ALBANY — Imelda Marcos’ former secretary asked New York’s top court yesterday to overturn her conviction for conspiring to sell masterpiece paintings belonging to the Philippine government that disappeared when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted as president.

A lawyer for Vilma Bautista told the Court of Appeals the former secretary — who was convicted of selling four paintings, including a Monet that went for $32 million, concealing the proceeds from tax authorities and failing to pay $3.5 million in taxes on the sales — was deprived of a fair trial in 2013.

Bautista’s attorney contended the trial judge failed to allow testimony beneficial to Bautista and permitted a prosecutor to misstate another witness’s testimony.

“I suggest the whole trial was not fair,” Nathan Dershowitz told the seven-judge court. He said a tax attorney led Bautista and an adviser to believe she didn’t owe any taxes on proceeds from the art sale.

A Manhattan prosecutor countered that the case was cut and dried.

“The fundamental issue is that Ms. Bautista received $32 million for the sale, orchestrated the entire sale, made sure it was kept secret . . . kept $12 million for herself, reported just $10,000 in income and paid New York $78 in taxes,” said Garrett Lynch, an assistant district attorney for New York County. The issue of the advice she may or may not have received from a tax attorney is a “red herring,” he argued.

Bautista’s appeal was the latest twist in a case that figured prominently in the Philippine government’s attempt to regain possession of some 200 paintings Marcos and Imelda, his wife, had accumulated during his 20-year dictatorship.

In 2013, a Manhattan jury took less than three hours to convict Bautista, then 75 years old, of conspiracy and tax fraud in connection with the sale of Claude Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas” (Water Lilies) to a London art gallery for $32 million.

According to reports, the painting and three others were taken in 1995 from a Manhattan townhouse used by Imelda Marcos. Bautista claimed Imelda Marcos authorized her to sell the paintings. The tax attorney, according to court documents, said Bautista led him to believe she sold the paintings on behalf of Marcos and not for personal gain.

At the trial, a jury agreed with prosecutors that Bautista had held on to the paintings for years before attempting to sell them, and had conspired with two nephews to sell them on the black market.

In 2014, a judge sentenced Bautista to two to six years in prison and ordered her to pay $3.5 million in income taxes. But the judge allowed her to remain free pending her appeal.

Dershowitz asked the Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction because the trial judge didn’t allow the jury to review an investigator’s notes that might have helped Bautista’s case, and, he claimed, the trial judge misstated the advice the tax attorney gave his client — leading the jury to draw improper inferences.

The court typically takes four to six weeks to decide a case.

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