Malaysian contractor flees ahead of US Navy scandal sentencing

‘Fat Leonard’ cut off GPS monitor and fled California home weeks ahead of sentencing in extensive US Navy bribery case.

A wanted poster provided by the US Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis, also known as "Fat Leonard".
A wanted poster provided by the US Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis, also known as "Fat Leonard", on Tuesday, September 6, 2022 [US Marshals Service via AP]

A Malaysian defence contractor at the centre of one of the biggest bribery scandals in United States military history is on the run after fleeing his home in California, three weeks before he faced sentencing, the US Marshals Service has said.

US Marshals in San Diego tweeted a “wanted” notice on Wednesday for Leonard Glenn Francis — popularly known as “Fat Leonard” — who was scheduled to be sentenced later this month after pleading guilty in 2015 to his role in a $35m bribery case involving senior US Navy officials.

The San Diego Fugitive Task Force is “searching” for Francis for violating the conditions of his pre-trial release after he cut off his GPS ankle monitor and fled his home.

Law enforcement officers went to Francis’s home in San Diego after receiving an alert on Sunday that the GPS monitor Francis had worn while in home confinement was being tampered with.

“After a thorough check of the residence, officers were unable to locate Francis. Officers were able to locate the GPS ankle monitor that had been cut off. His current whereabouts are unknown,” the Marshals Service said in a statement on Tuesday.

Francis was scheduled to be sentenced on September 22 after working with US prosecutors for years, leading to dozens of convictions in the vast military contract bribery case.

Four Navy officers have been found guilty so far, while another 29 people, including naval officials, contractors and Francis himself, have pleaded guilty, according to US media reports.

Mexico or Asia?

Nearly a dozen US law enforcement agencies are now searching for Francis.

But officials acknowledged he may already be in Mexico, and possibly on his way back to Asia.

Nearly a decade ago, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he and his company, the Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia, cheated the Navy out of more than $35m by buying off dozens of high-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.

In exchange, the officers, including the first active-duty US admiral to be convicted of a federal crime, concealed the scheme in which Francis would overcharge the US Navy for supplying ships or charge for fake services at ports he controlled in Southeast Asia.

The case, which delved into salacious details about US service members cheating on their wives and seeking out sex workers, was an embarrassment to the Pentagon.

It was prosecuted by the US attorney’s office, which offered an independent authority from the military justice system. Charges were eventually brought against more than 30 people.

The first to be convicted in the case was John Beliveau II, a supervisor in the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), who pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiracy and bribery charges.

According to the plea, Beliveau gave Francis advice on how to thwart an NCIS investigation against him, leaked the names of witnesses, and shared hundreds of pages of confidential NCIS files with him.

In exchange, Beliveau received travel, dinners and hotel costs worth thousands of dollars during luxury trips to Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand, at least five envelopes of cash, and the services of sex workers, the document said.

Beliveau was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2016 and ordered to pay $20m in restitution to the Navy.

“Beliveau tarnished his NCIS badge and sold sensitive law enforcement information for envelopes of cash, luxury travel and tawdry entertainment,” the US Justice Department’s Assistant Attorney General Leslie R Caldwell said at the time.

“John Beliveau’s deceit was a devastating blow to the US Navy and ultimately the nation that he was sworn to protect,” US Attorney Laura E Duffy of the Southern District of California added.


Flight risk

Four years ago, US District Court Judge Janis Sammartino feared Francis might abscond when she turned down his lawyer’s request to allow him to be under house arrest without round-the-clock security guards watching the ailing defence contractor.

At the time, Francis was cooperating with prosecutors as they pursued charges against dozens of Navy officials who accepted bribes.

When asked about the bold escape, the fugitive’s lawyer, Devin Burstein, who had pushed for more leniency for his client, said: “At this time, I have no comment, sorry.”

Judge Sammartino repeatedly maintained that Francis, who was in poor health and needed medical care, could only remain under house arrest if private security guards were on site.

At one point, she expressed concern that if he were to escape and ended up “back in Malaysia for whatever reason,” her name would come up if anyone asked “who let somebody do this without any security,” according to a transcript of a closed-door hearing in February 2018 that was unsealed in January.

It was unclear if round-the-clock security guards were still in place over the weekend when Francis cut off his GPS monitor and fled.

Supervisory Deputy US Marshal Omar Castillo said his officers found no security officers at the home when they arrived on Sunday afternoon, nearly seven hours after Francis is believed to have removed his ankle monitor with heavy scissors.

Castillo said neighbours reported seeing U-Haul trucks coming and going from Francis’s home one or two days before the escape.

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

Francis may be hard to catch, given his wealth and vast worldwide connections, said Jason Forge, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who has worked on several high-profile corruption cases.

“He doesn’t strike me as the type of person under these circumstances to make a spontaneous decision,” Forge said.

“I’m assuming this means he has planned things out and he has the wherewithal to do so. He will probably be a free bird for a while.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies