Explainer: How did the big fish in the Navy corruption case get away?

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Malaysian defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard”‘s big jovial personality has won him favors across Asia, where he became wealthy wooing U.S. Navy commanders with sex parties wild and luxury gifts.

Leonard Francis has admitted to being the mastermind of one of the most far-reaching corruption scandals in American military history. Now, having staged a daring escape performed in broad daylight over the holiday weekend in an upscale suburban San Diego neighborhood, many wonder if he used that same charm to get help disappearing. Here is an overview of the case and what is known and not known.



Francis owned and operated the family ship maintenance business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd. or Singapore-based GDMA, which supplied ships with food, water and fuel. An enigmatic figure, Francis was a primary point of contact for US Navy ships in ports across Asia for more than two decades. He was photographed drinking and eating with the best brass in the navy. He offered officers Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and wild sex parties at luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines. In exchange, officers concealed his company’s overcharging from the U.S. military. After investigators found out, Francis was lured to San Diego under false pretences and arrested at a hotel in 2013. He pleaded guilty in 2015, admitting he offered more than $500,000 in bribes -wine in cash to Navy officials, defense contractors and others who aided his scheme. He used his influence to get commanders to direct their mostly Navy 7th Fleet ships to ports he controlled so he could cover up false accusations. Prosecutors say he defrauded the Navy of at least $35 million.


Francis faced up to 25 years in prison, but his sentencing date was repeatedly pushed back to the latest date of September 22 because he was a key witness in the US prosecutor’s case. . As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with the investigation dating back to 2009. With his help, prosecutors secured convictions for 33 of the 34 defendants, including more than two dozen naval officers. But while in custody, he was hospitalized and treated for kidney cancer and other medical issues, undergoing unspecified procedures, according to court transcripts. After leaving the hospital, he was cleared by the judge to stay in a condominium in 2018 to continue receiving medical treatment there, but was ordered to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet on his ankle and to have 24-hour security guards on site.


Francis left the condo after getting into an argument with the landlord, according to court transcripts. But rather than return to prison, Francis’ lawyers managed to convince the judge to allow him to continue to remain on medical leave. He moved to another rental building. He will remain under house arrest for almost five years. But US District Court Judge Janis Sammartino expressed repeated reservations about the arrangement which included Francis covering the costs of the private security company assigned to monitor him. It was unclear from court records how many guards were on duty and where they were stationed, and what adjustments were made based on his medical care. At a hearing in December 2020, the judge heard the house was left unattended for three hours while a security guard went to lunch.


Yes. Sammartino questioned defense attorneys who said Francis was too ill to be treated by U.S. Bureau of Prisons medical staff. She was also surprised to learn during a closed hearing that Francis’ three children and his mother lived in the main residence of the property where he was staying. Her lawyer asked the judge to allow her to walk her children to school and go grocery shopping on occasion, but she expressed concern that he already had a lot of leniency, according to court transcripts. Questions about whether he still warranted medical leave were raised in late 2020 after the judge received a letter from a San Diego surgeon who gave Francis a clean bill of health after having him cared for. But his lawyer argued there were other health issues and his medical leave was extended until May 23, 2022. No further public transcripts regarding his living situation have been released.


Neighbors spotted U-Haul trucks coming and going from the residence as early as Friday, two days before Francis cut off his watchband with heavy scissors and disappeared on Sunday. San Diego police were called to the home nearly six hours later.


Ten US federal, state and local agencies are looking for Francis. Mexican authorities were also advised to be on high alert for him since his home was only 40 minutes from the US-Mexico border. The US Marshals Service issued a notice asking the public for information.

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