Whiskey, Kobe beef and suckling pig: inside the ‘Fat Leonard’ navy bribery scandal

Leonard Francis, who pleaded guilty to fraud, is on the run, leaving questions about the role of military contractors in his wake

Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard”, skipped house arrest on Monday and has, in all probability, crossed the US-Mexico border and is trying to make his way to Asia.

Francis, who was due to be sentenced after pleading guilty to a decades-long military contractor fraud scheme, has left behind a headache for the US navy, and for the military broadly, in mounting foreign operations.

At 350 pounds, Francis merited the name “Fat Leonard”. But he was also known in navy circles as “Leonard the Legend”, and as the man who seduced the 7th Fleet by systematically greasing the wheels with corrupt bonhomie.

The tools of his trade included whiskey, Cuban cigars, Spanish suckling pigs, Kobe beef and what prosecutors described as a “rotating carousel of prostitutes”, designer handbags, Lady Gaga tickets, Gucci fashion shows and cash – all to win ship resupply or husbanding contracts across south-east Asia.

Along the way, the “Fat Leonard” investigation placed 60 admirals and 550 other US navy officers under scrutiny for accepting bribes. More than 30 navy officers and contractors have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

“Everybody was in my pocket,” Francis once said. “I had them in my palm. I was just rolling them around.”

But on Monday, days before Francis was due to be sentenced on a plea deal for overcharging the navy $35m, he cut off his GPS tracking ankle bracelet, dropped it in a water cooler, and fled his home. When US marshals arrived, they found Francis’s San Diego house cleaned out. Neighbors said they’d seen U-Haul trucks in front of his house. The marshals said he should be easy to spot, but noted that the border was just 40 miles away.

This wanted poster provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis
Leonard Francis cut off his GPS tracking ankle bracelet and is likely to have crossed the border into Mexico. Photograph: AP

Francis’s supply operation spoke to the scale of the navy’s logistical needs. When the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Stennis, with 5,000 sailors aboard, anchored off Kota Kinabalu, on the north-west coast of Borneo along the South China Sea, Francis was there to greet the ship with fuel, tugboats, barges, food, water and sewage removal – as well as shore-orientated services of another, age-old nature.

In June 2011, despite an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Francis’s company Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA) was awarded contracts worth $200m to service ships at ports he controlled in south-east Asia. But over two decades, GDMA’s contracts are estimated to have run into the billions.

The company supplied the navies of Britain, France, Mexico, India and the Netherlands. It boasted a fleet of 50 vessels, including a pirate patrol ship with British-trained Gurkha soldiers from Nepal. Francis purchased a decommissioned British warship, the RFA Sir Lancelot, renamed it the Glenn Braveheart, and turned it into a party boat with prostitutes in the wardroom to greet US officers.

Francis did not exactly keep a low personal profile either. He was known to ride around Singapore in an armored SUV, wore bespoke suits and carried a “blowtorch of a cigar lighter”, according to one admiral.

“Yeah, he was a crook, but he was our crook,” Cmdr Mike Misiewicz, deputy of fleet operations for the 7th Fleet, memorably told Defense News in 2016. Misiewicz described a relationship of convenience in which the navy, he said, was all too willing to “look the other way and make it all look legit”.

Misiewicz pleaded guilty to feeding Singapore-based GDMA information on upcoming ship visits, and influencing where those visits would be, in exchange for money and favors. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison.

“The Soviets couldn’t have penetrated us better than Leonard Francis,” a retired navy officer told the Washington Post. “He’s got people skills that are off the scale. He can hook you so fast that you don’t see it coming … At one time he had infiltrated the entire leadership line. The KGB could not have done what he did.”

By 2006, NCIS had opened 27 separate investigations into GDMA. But each was closed after investigators failed to dig up sufficient evidence. It was not until 2013 that federal agents lured him to San Diego with promises of a meeting with admirals who, they suggested, had lucrative contracts to offer. Two years later, he pleaded guilty and began cooperating with investigators.

At a court hearing a year later, Robert Huie, then assistant US attorney in San Diego, said: “Mr Francis’s conduct has passed from being merely exceptional to being the stuff of history and legend.”

But the Fat Leonard scandal has further implications than the corruption of naval officers. The issue of military contractors has come up repeatedly in recent years – from Halliburton in Iraq to Blackwater in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Addicott, a professor of law and director of the Warrior Defense Project, says that the flight of Fat Leonard “is not only an embarrassment to our criminal justice system but another blow to the critical relationship between civilian contractors and the military.”

Addicott, who represented one of the navy officials under investigation, says that since the second world war, congressional caps on the number of armed forces personnel have forced the US military to rely increasingly on contractors to support deployments of armed forces. “They have civilianized a lot of positions because it’s cheaper and because the systems needed to operate ships and aircraft are so complex the military has to rely on contractors to maintain them.

“We have to trust the contractors to perform these functions, and often we don’t have time to do the paperwork, or think the paperwork will catch up later, and that has led to a lot of fraud, waste and abuse,” Addicott says. “Nobody really knows how much money we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The issue may again come to light with military aid to Ukraine, currently standing at $57bn. Last week, the Biden administration authorized an additional $1.1bn in arms sales to Taiwan. Transfer of arms and equipment that typically go through contractors.

“Given the fact that the Biden administration is pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into Ukraine (via civilian contractors) with zero accountability for where most of the money and weapons go, it is very troubling to see this development,” Addicott adds.

But with Fat Leonard now on the lam, the lessons of the scandal may have yet to be learned, and that corruption may just be built into larger objectives and the projection of US strategic power.

“For us to get a ship to a port, Leonard did our dirty work. That’s the best way, and most blunt way that you could describe that happening,” Misiewicz told Defense News of the fixer’s central importance. ​

“Whether it’s through the NCIS, or the embassy, with the host nation police, with the host nation government, the guy was connected and had every in and out on making things happen,” he added. “And as morally upright as we are as Americans, the fact of the matter is some things over there in Asia have to be done behind closed doors.”


Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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