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'Fat Leonard' fallout: Officers talk growing bribery scandal and 'epic parties'

Nov. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Key players in the ongoing Navy bribery scandal, clockwise from left: Cmdr. Mike Misiewicz, charged with accepting bribes and handing out classified information; Leonard Glenn Francis, charged with bribing Navy officers to steer ships toward ports where he could overcharge the Navy; and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless and Vice Adm. Ted Branch, who have been placed on temporary leave as the investigation continues.
Key players in the ongoing Navy bribery scandal, clockwise from left: Cmdr. Mike Misiewicz, charged with accepting bribes and handing out classified information; Leonard Glenn Francis, charged with bribing Navy officers to steer ships toward ports where he could overcharge the Navy; and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless and Vice Adm. Ted Branch, who have been placed on temporary leave as the investigation continues. (AP / Navy)
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The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis made the record books in September 2012 when it became the first U.S. flattop to pull into Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, a bustling port that borders the strategically important South China Sea.

While a milestone for the U.S. Navy and the ship’s crew, it was a windfall for a deep-pocketed Malaysian “fixer” who now stands accused of bribing and manipulating active-duty officers to steer the carrier there — and to make millions overcharging the service. The $2.7 million port call cost more than double the average for carrier stops at other Malaysian ports.

Federal prosecutors allege that Leonard Glenn Francis, the head of the Navy’s primary husbanding company in Asia, regularly enticed naval officers to direct warships to more lucrative ports for his business by offering bribes including junkets, prostitutes, cash — even “Lion King” tickets.

Francis was privy to classified ship movements and, in cases like the Stennis, even clandestinely orchestrated the ship’s port calls to suit his bottom line, according to the allegations.

Three Navy officials have been charged in connection with the scandal. Three more officers, including a three-star, are under investigation.

The scandal has rocked the officer corps, with many wondering how broadly the fallout could spread, given that Francis has been a fixture for more than two decades of port calls across the Pacific, from South Korea to Hong Kong to Sydney. He glad-handed ship captains and fleet commanders and earned a reputation for bestowing them with boxes of Cuban cigars or invitations to the sort of lavish parties that made Western Pacific deployments memorable.

A half dozen retired and active-duty officers agreed to speak with Navy Times, all on condition of anonymity while the investigations continue, to share their experiences working with Francis and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

All expect that more senior officers will come under scrutiny as prosecutors press Francis, who’s now in custody in San Diego.

“If you’re throwing a three-star admiral under the bus, no one’s safe,” said one retired cruiser skipper. Francis, he continued, “has been around for a long time. So the guys who got dinged on this in 2009, 2010, ... Leonard was around for a long time before that.”

Navy Cmdrs. Mike Misiewicz and Jose Luis Sanchez, along with NCIS Supervisory Special Agent John Beliveau, are accused of colluding with Francis and could face prison time. The Navy fired Capt. Daniel Dusek, the commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, a month ago. He has not been charged with any crimes, but sources say that investigators have linked him to Francis.

Francis, Misiewicz and Beliveau have all pleaded not guilty and face up to five years in prison.

On Nov. 8, in a highly unusual move, the Navy suspended the three-star head of naval intelligence, Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch, and a one-star deputy, Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, for their connections to Francis; they have not been charged.

Many are puzzled about this latest move, noting that Branch is known for his no-nonsense style and was featured prominently in the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary “Carrier” when he was CO of the aircraft carrier Nimitz.

The allegations, which remain unclear, stem from their conduct prior to their current assignments and from before they made admiral, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy’s top spokesman.

Both men retain their rank and have been placed on temporary leave, Kirby added.

As fallout from the scandal spreads, the Navy severed its more than $200 million contract with Glenn Defense Marine, according to a USA Today report — ending three contracts, valued at $196 million, for cause and spiking three more, valued at $7.5 million, “for convenience,” a Navy spokesman told the newspaper.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert declined to discuss the investigation, but did provide this comment to Navy Times:

“I’m always concerned about allegations of misconduct or criminal behavior in our Navy. That includes those allegations in this ongoing investigation. Because it is ongoing, I want to protect and support the integrity of the investigative process, so I don’t have anything further. We have to let the investigation unfold.”

When asked about additional officer fallout, Greenert said, “I do not know the details of the investigation. I have nothing more for you at this time. If there is wrongdoing, I expect people to be held accountable.”

'A used car salesman'

The continuing investigations have cast a harsh light on Francis, often known as “Fat Leonard” for his girth, and his extensive ties to fleet staffs and ship captains from nearly two decades of hand-in-glove support across Southeast Asia. Indeed, Francis’ agents have provided the logistics behind many of the fleet’s favorite ports.

For many, Francis is an unmistakable part of a WESTPAC cruise. A tall, heavyset 49-year-old who wears designer shirts and gold watches, he’d step out onto the pier from his armored Hummer with tinted windows of reinforced glass.

Flanked by four or five guards in black suits, he had the air of a visiting dignitary — and came bearing gifts.

He’d personally deliver gifts for the strike group commander, for the ship’s skipper, for the supply officer who would later sign the forms authorizing payment, sources allege. Per Defense Department regulations, a Navy officer can accept gifts only of $20 or less, so Francis’ largesse allegedly put many in a bind. He was known for unsolicited gifts like boxes of Cuban cigars and bottles of Champagne that cost more than $500.

Eager to curry favor with senior officers via pricey gifts or invitations to VIP parties, Francis earned a reputation for “sliminess,” according to one former officer who dealt with him, raising questions about why it took the Navy until 2010 to open its criminal investigation.

“It was never a matter of the quality of service we got from him,” recalled a retired supply corps officer who negotiated directly with Francis and his agents on two Western Pacific cruises. “He was like a used car salesman. You just knew that something wasn’t right.”

Francis’ trademark move was showering the top officers with gifts, often delivering them on the last barge so that the departing ship couldn’t return them, the former SUPPO said.

Others who dealt with him recalled an uncomfortable edge to the smooth-talking businessman.

Francis was the “Tony Soprano of Singapore,” said one retired flag officer with U.S. Pacific Command. “There was a nasty side that came out whether you did business with him or not.”

Francis’lawyer, David Black of Holland and Knight, issued a “no comment,” and Valeriane Toon, head of Glenn Global Corporate Communications, referred all questions to Black.

'A man of the world'

Francis knew to get in good with his customer. Francis’ business relied on providing extensive support services in port to the ship: everything from delivering parts and provisions to pumping out the ship’s sewage. If the ship wanted it, his job was to make it happen. Many of these items were fixed price — which the ship could order off a checklist like a customer ordering toppings on a sandwich — and so the profit margin often came down to the extent of services. More Yokohama fenders on the pier equates to more profit.

The overseas fleet is often dependent on fixers like Francis to advise on what’s needed and then get it. That’s especially true in a new or atypical port, where the ship is more dependent on the husbanding agent to provide all the services — and where fewer port calls gives Francis an opening to overcharge the Navy.

“If I pull my ship into Changhi, that is a Singaporean navy port: They have guards, they have lights, they have security. It costs nothing,” said the retired cruiser skipper. “Now I pull into Pattaya Beach, Thailand. They don’t have any of that. So guess what? Leonard is going to bring all that.

“And he’s going to charge. He’s going to get his profit.”

In this line of work, relationships mattered. Francis often showed up personally to manage the port calls, especially for aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibs whose support was big business for GDMA.

“I guess that’s one of the odd things about Leonard Francis: Most ports you go into, you talk to a senior representative of the [husbanding] company, you don’t talk to the CEO of the company,” said the retired supply corps officer who dealt with GDMA.

“He seemed to make it a personal quest to make sure that he was glad-handing as many senior officers on the ships as he could. And more particular at that O-6 and above level.”

Francis, by all accounts a charismatic businessman, spoke Navy and was a big name-dropper. He loved to tell ship skippers about the fleet commanders he’d met with. He also ingratiated himself with many, knowing that today’s department head would be back in five years as a ship CO.

Francis lived large in Singapore and earned a reputation for outsized hospitality inside the Navy. He threw barbecues for visiting ships and was known for inviting officers to swanky parties in places like Hong Kong.

“He threw an epic party for the officers with free everything and lots of girls,” recalled one former ship executive officer, who added that he believed the women were mostly escorts there to make it a scene.

Indeed, Fat Leonard parties are renowned in some circles during the two decades he has operated in Asia. Because of the ties he’s made, he has his defenders. One former attendee even bristled at the media descriptions of Francis as fat, noting that he had shed about 100 pounds after his stomach stapling surgery years ago and guessed he was closer to 250 pounds.

“He is a charming, affable, engaging, friendly fellow,” said the retired cruiser CO, who admitted he’d been to some parties. “He’s a man of the world.”

Francis’ full service allegedly didn’t end at the pier. He was rumored to be able to set up senior officers with golf outings at private clubs or with lavish, $1,000-a-night hotel rooms at a fraction of the cost.

Indeed, Francis is alleged to have bribed Cmdr. Misiewicz with, among other things, trips and hotel rooms. Francis bought Misiewicz and three of his children airplane tickets on a two-week vacation to Cambodia and Malaysia, according to federal charging documents. In return, Misiewicz — a former destroyer CO who served as the deputy operations officer at the Yokosuka-based 7th Fleet — sent Francis classified port visit schedules and lobbied for Francis’ choices. Foremost among them was sending a carrier to Kota Kinabalu, a feat that Francis, with Misiewicz’s help, achieved with Stennis in 2012.

The quid pro quo appears even more blatant with Cmdr. Sanchez, another 7th Fleet staffer who prosecutors allege sent ship schedules to Francis in return for $100,000 and prostitutes. Francis allegedly purchased hotel rooms and prostitutes for Sanchez and some friends on a 2009 trip to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. After Francis emailed some of the prostitutes’ photos at Sanchez’s request, Sanchez replied “Yummy ... daddy like,” according to the charging documents.

Beliveau, an NCIS supervisory special agent who was based in Singapore a few years ago, is accused of feeding Francis tips on the investigation’s progress in return for trips and prostitutes.

A defense attorney for Misiewicz did not respond to a request for comment Nov. 15. Beliveau’s attorney previously declined to comment on the case.

Attempts to reach an attorney for Sanchez, whose initial court date is set for Nov. 22, were unsuccessful.

Few who dealt with Francis, however, are surprised by the GDMA scandal.

The supply officer said there were rumors for more than a decade about Francis’ largesse, oftentimes seen out in the open, like when he allegedly bestowed one CO with a double magnum of vintage Champagne.

“If this is what he’s willing to do out in the open,” he said, “it doesn’t surprise me there were behind-the-door” offerings, too.■

Staff writers Christopher P. Cavas, Mark D. Faram and Wendell Minnick contributed to this report.

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