Who is “Fat Leonard”? Fugitive at center of US Navy bribery case caught in Venezuela

A Malaysian defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” who masterminded one of the biggest bribery scandals in US military history has been arrested in Venezuela after fleeing his sentence, authorities said Wednesday.

An international manhunt for Leonard Glenn Francis, 57, ended with his arrest by Venezuelan authorities Tuesday morning at the Caracas airport as he was about to board a plane bound for another country, the U.S. Marshals Service said.

Here are some details about Francis’ remarkable case and escape just days before his sentencing.

Who is he?

Francis built a huge business, largely fulfilling US military supply contracts through his Singapore-based ship services company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd.

An investigation was launched after some US Navy officials began discovering financial irregularities in 2010. Francis was lured to a meeting at a San Diego hotel three years later and arrested, and five of his company’s employees were indicted.

Prosecutors say the company demanded at least $35 million more from the Navy. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering prostitution services, luxury hotels, cigars, gourmet jobs and more than $500,000 in bribes to Navy officials and others.

Earning his nickname for his size — six feet tall, believed to be over 300 pounds — Francis appeared on Project Brazen’s Fat Leonard podcast last year.

Francis was often proud when he told podcast journalist Tom Wright about his exploits, but he said he felt “betrayed” by what happened.

“I’ve been a loyal person, a contractor, a defense contractor, and I’ve done a lot over the last 30 years,” he said. “To support hundreds if not thousands of ships, hundreds of thousands of sailors and marines in all kinds of places. I’ve never done any harm to the United States. It was just a matter of money.”

Nice details put the Pentagon to shame

The incident has caused a huge black eye for the US military, highlighting corruption in the ranks and raising security concerns given the information Francis had at his disposal.

Naval officers provided Francis with classified information that helped him beat competitors, and in some cases commanders steered ships to Pacific ports where his company could charge bogus rates and fees, prosecutors said.

A US federal attorney characterized it in 2017 as a “flagship and betrayal of the US Navy of epic proportions”.

The details of Francis’ prayers and his nudging with the navy did not make for boring reading.

U.S. Attorneys Mark Pletcher, left, and Robert Huie, right, speak outside the federal courthouse in San Diego on Jan. 15, 2015, about Francis’s confession to bribery charges. As a result of the so-called Fat Leonard scandal, dozens of US naval officers were convicted of various charges. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

One meal during a 2006 port visit to Hong Kong cost US$20,435. A dinner in port in Singapore this year featured foie gras, oxtail soup, cognac costing about US$2,000 a bottle and cigars US$2,000 a box.

And then there was the 2007 port call in the Philippines that involved allegations involving naval officers and several prostitutes at a Manila hotel. Courts have heard that Francis also owned a decommissioned British ship that was often used as a party ship to entertain top US Navy officials.

Home confirmation was requested

The fact that he was on the run and the circumstances surrounding it made things more difficult, albeit this time for the US Marshals Service and federal authorities.

With Francis’ help, prosecutors secured convictions for 33 of the 34 defendants, including more than two dozen naval officers. Francis faced a 25-year prison sentence and was due to be sentenced on September 22.

While in custody, he was hospitalized and treated for kidney cancer and other medical problems and underwent unspecified procedures, according to court transcripts.

He was put on so-called medical leave. Four years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino feared that Francis might flee and repeatedly argued that he could remain under house arrest only if private security guards were on site 24 hours a day, according to the minutes of the closed-door hearing. in February 2018, which opened in January this year.

He raised similar concerns at a second hearing on December 17, 2020, after receiving reports that the home had been left unattended for almost three hours. The guard said he had been on a long lunch break, according to a court transcript.

The judge was also surprised to learn in a closed session that Francis’ three children and his mother lived in the main residence on the property where he was staying.

How did he escape?

The San Diego Police Department received a call on September 4th. After finding the home empty, police contacted US Pre-Trial Services, the federal agency responsible for his arrest, who then called the US Marshals Service.

A U.S. Marshals spokeswoman said officers from the agency found no security personnel at the home when they arrived at the home, which was estimated to be about seven hours after Francis had removed his ankle monitor with heavy scissors. The device was found at home.

“You know, that’s a risk that’s taken when defendants are on GPS tracking,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Omar Castillo told The Associated Press. “They don’t all cut off their GPS bracelets, but it can happen.”

Neighbors reported seeing U-Haul trucks coming and going from the home a day or two before the escape.

What happened next

It was feared that Francis could end up in Asia with his wealth and connections.

But his home is about a 40-minute drive from the Mexican border, where vehicles stream into Tijuana and are stopped randomly.

Although the United States and Venezuela are not allies, Francis was detained Wednesday at the country’s main international airport on a red notice requested by the United States for crimes of corruption and bribery, Venezuela’s Interpol chief said in a statement posted on Instagram.

He arrived in Venezuela from Mexico with a stopover in Cuba and intended to continue on to Russia, Interpol said in a statement. Authorities will now initiate proceedings for his extradition, it added.