NORFOLK, Va. — The bribery trial of Cmdr. David Morales kicked off in a military courtroom here on Tuesday, with prosecutors claiming that the Navy fighter pilot leaked secret ship schedules to a crooked contractor for booze, sumptuous feasts, luxury resort stays, Julio Iglesias concert tickets and even a few suckling pigs.
At the heart of their case squats the rotund fraudster Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis, a corrupt Malaysian tycoon they say wooed Morales to recruit fellow commissioned officers into a web of corruption connecting ports across the western Pacific.
But defense attorneys in this Norfolk Naval Base courtroom insist the feds got the wrong man, sometimes confusing him with other indicted officers or simply botching the probe because they trusted the lies of Leonard instead of the evidence in front of them.
What’s not in dispute is that Francis was arrested during a San Diego sting operation in 2013 and federal raids on his Glenn Defense Maritime Asia offices shuttered a company that had bilked $35 million from the Navy in bloated invoices and bogus port service contracts fixed by corrupt Navy leaders.
Staring at Morales during his opening arguments, deputy prosecutor Marine Capt. Ben Brighton said that the Navy officer’s “loyalty was to Leonard Francis and not to his country.”
“Cmdr. Morales approached Leonard Francis with his hands out and his eyes wide open. And in exchange, he gave Francis information he wouldn’t have had if not for his official position."
The defense team for Morales painted a very different portrait. They claim Morales was merely a social acquaintance of Leonard’s, a pair of drinking pals who met at the Navy Ball in Singapore in 2011.
That relationship blossomed over the next two years, defense attorneys contend, but it was a personal bond, not a professional arrangement.
“There was no need for a professional interaction between the accused and Leonard Francis,” said defense attorney Frank Spinner, a retired Air Force officer. "The evidence will show that no such relationship existed between Cmdr. Morales and Leonard Francis.”
To Spinner, Leonard’s testimony transcribed during a recent California deposition isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Convicted in 2015, Francis awaits sentencing on fraud charges.
Over the past three years, he’s snitched on a string of past and present Navy officials. Federal prosecutors have charged 32 defendants and 20 pleaded guilty to public corruption charges.
But Spinner said that the defense team found at least 11 lies in his sworn testimony about Morales, falsehoods that can be easily disproven with the evidence federal investigators have already compiled.
And that’s how Morales almost beat the rap on Tuesday.
The defense team had urged military judge Navy Capt. Charles Purnell to declare a mistrial. They contended that the prosecutors failed to share evidence that would’ve cleared their client.
But in a pretrial decision Purnell ruled that the prosecution barely “saved the day for the government” by providing the minimal amount of evidence necessary to defense attorneys.
That unleashed deputy prosecutor Brighton, who dramatically portrayed Francis as the hub in a vast Asian “GDMA wheel of corruption” and Morales as one of its strongest spokes.
He detailed a feast Francis held in Hawaii, with Morales alone consuming $2,000 worth of food and drink.
There was the trip alongside Francis to Thailand, with the corrupt contractor footing the bill for the airfare, limousine, an overnight stay at the Conrad Hotel and a private party at the exclusive Pegasus Club where Francis held court.
When Morales moved off base to private quarters in Singapore, Francis failed to show for his housewarming party but made sure the pilot received alcohol and three or four suckling pigs.
Firing back, the defense attorneys contend that Morales never saw Francis as a contractor but rather a chum, not unlike many Singapore socialites hobnobbing with the fighter pilot during his time there.
The defense team says that Fracncis' friendship with Morales grew in 2012, when the pilot was named chairman of the 2013 Navy Ball, an event Francis' company traditionally sponsored.
Although Francis might have preyed on Navy officers who controlled lucrative shipping contracts, Morales had nothing to do with those, Spinner argued.
In fact, there was no chore Morales could’ve done to help Francis or his company.
Spinner urged the judge to view their relationship solely “through the lens of the Navy Ball” and find him not guilty.
The trial continues Wednesday.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.