Fat Leonard escape another blunder in major US military corruption scandal
In a scene from a thriller, a 350-pound cancer patient at the center of the biggest U.S. military corruption case in the last decade cut off his GPS ankle monitor this past weekend and fled from house arrest, weeks before he was finally set to be sentenced.
The manhunt for Leonard Francis — the Malaysian contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who pleaded guilty in 2015 to cheating the Navy out of tens of millions of dollars — has quickly pulled in at least 10 federal, state and local agencies and likely reached across the Mexican border.
The escape has raised myriad questions, such as why Francis wasn’t being watched day-and-night as his Sept. 22 sentencing date approached.
Tom Wright, the host of the nine-part “Fat Leonard” podcast on the scandal, said the latest development is “a huge black eye” for the U.S. government.
“This thing’s been a total mess for the Department of Justice and the Navy,”
Wright, who last year talked to Francis for over 20 hours for the podcast, told The Hill.
Francis, the former president of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia, was arrested in 2013 and convicted in 2015 for a decades-long grift in which he plied dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with cash, cigars, top shelf alcohol, sex workers and parties in exchange for bloated supply contracts.
The bribery bilked the Navy out of more than $35 million, led to the first active-duty admiral to be convicted for a federal crime, and was a massive embarrassment for the Pentagon.
Since his conviction, Francis had languished in a legal limbo for seven years. The plea deal he took meant he had to help U.S. prosecutors implicate three-dozen military officials, cases that have played out slowly, with the last one ending in June.
One thing that is clear about his escape is that the U.S. government had less than ideal monitoring of Francis at the time.
From early 2018 until he fled, the judge in the case allowed Francis to live in a private home in San Diego due to his renal cancer; however, under the deal Francis, was responsible for paying for 24-hour security at his residence and was required to wear an ankle bracelet.
But that self-funded security detail had its gaps, with the house left unguarded for almost three hours after the guard took a lunch break, according to a court transcript from a Dec. 17, 2020, hearing with Francis.
It is unclear if guards were on duty in the days before Francis fled, but early Sunday morning he hacked off his ankle monitor and caused the device to alert U.S. Pretrial Services, the agency responsible for monitoring him. U.S. Marshals Service officials were then sent to his residence, which they found empty with no guard present.
Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Omar Castillo told The Hill that his San Diego office received the call from U.S. Pretrial Services around 2:30 p.m., assembled a team and were at the residence in no more than 30 minutes.
That means more than seven hours elapsed between Francis cutting off the monitor and authorities arriving at the house.
“They’re not hard to take off, they’re not like a handcuff, they’re like a rubber band and you can just easily cut them off with some medical shears or some good scissors. It happens at times,” Castillo said.
Castillo said ankle monitors send an alert as soon as they are tampered with, but U.S. Marshals don’t get involved until a federal judge issues a warrant — something that Pretrial Services officials must request.
After Francis was discovered missing, deputies questioned neighbors who relayed that they saw U-Haul moving trucks “coming in and out of the driveway” in the days leading up to the escape, Castillo said.
“It’s pretty obvious that he left the country,” he said, noting that San Diego is only 40 minutes by car from the Mexican border.
Although Francis had pleaded guilty to his role in the sweeping scandal, Wright painted a picture of a man “extremely angry about what he saw as a cover up in the Navy and the fact that he was a scapegoat for everything that went on.”
“He admitted to the corruption in this case, but he believed that a lot of very senior admirals who were involved with him who took, you know, the dinners and the women and the gifts, were let off scot-free. … he felt misused and that he was getting a raw deal,” he said.
The “Fat Leonard” podcast raised its own issues. Though Francis initially agreed to it, he was concerned the series could lead to a longer jail term, as he had talked candidly and at length about officials he’d bribed and what he saw as a military coverup, Wright said.
The media around the podcast, released in October 2021, indeed appeared to cause a stir at the Department of Justice, which pulled Francis as a star witness for the trials of several Navy officers who had pleaded not guilty to their charges.
“That’s why I think he’s gone on the run — he was looking down the barrel thinking, ‘Okay, I could potentially get a bunch of more years in jail after already doing nine and that’s not fair. I’m going to take my chances,’” Wright said.
At least 10 federal, state and local agencies are now involved in the manhunt, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
A Navy spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that the NCIS “is working jointly with the U.S. Marshals Service, Defense Criminal Investigative Service, and U.S. Attorney’s Office to locate and apprehend Mr. Francis.”
The service declined to comment further “out of respect for the investigative process.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office directed all questions to U.S. Marshals Services.
As of Thursday evening, authorities were following up on leads but had nothing new to release on the case, which remains “very fluid,” Castillo said.
Among the mysteries of the case is how the security around Francis remained so lax, even after officials appeared ruffled by his podcast, Wright said.
“I found that a little strange, I thought that they were going to tighten up his security after,” he said.
Another head scratcher is why authorities weren’t tipped off by security about the moving trucks.
“There’s all kinds of questions in my mind. Did somebody pay off the guards? If not, where were they? And how the hell would this happen? It’s just another black eye for the Department of Justice and the federal government in this case,” Wright said.
“They’ve allowed him to escape in almost a ‘Keystone Cops’ set of circumstances.”