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From fugitive to shackled prisoner, 'Fat Leonard' lands back in US court and could face more charges

Prosecutors say a defense contractor at the center of one of the biggest bribery scandals in U.S. military history is expected to face additional charges following his return to the United States from Venezuela as part of a broader prisoner swap between the two countries

Joshua Goodman,Eric Tucker
Thursday 21 December 2023 20:16 GMT
Venezuela Prisoner Deal
Venezuela Prisoner Deal

A defense contractor at the center of one of the biggest bribery scandals in U.S. military history is expected to face additional charges following his return to the United States from Venezuela as part of a broader prisoner swap between the two countries, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.

Leonard Glenn Francis, who is nicknamed “Fat Leonard,” faced a federal judge for the first time since snipping off his ankle monitor last year and disappearing weeks before a sentencing hearing on charges that he offered more than $500,000 in cash bribes to Navy officials, defense contractors and others.

He was later arrested in Venezuela and had been in custody there since, but was returned to the U.S. in a large swap that also saw the release of 10 American detainees by Venezuela in exchange for the Biden administration freeing Alex Saab, a Colombian-born businessman and close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who was facing money laundering charges in Miami.

Francis, shackled and in a beige jumpsuit, stood by quietly as a federal magistrate judge in Miami ordered him to be transferred to the Southern District of California, the region where his case was initially filed.

Prosecutors said additional charges would be presented against Francis for failing to appear at a hearing in his ongoing bribery case in San Diego.

“Not right now,” an otherwise expressionless but soft-spoken Francis said in response to Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Becerra’s question about whether he could afford an attorney.

Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he bilked the U.S. military out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.

The scandal led to the conviction and sentencing of nearly two dozen Navy officials, defense contractors and others on various fraud and corruption charges. Investigators say Francis, who owned and operated his family's ship-servicing business, abused his position as a key contact for U.S. Navy shops at ports across Asia, wooing naval officers with Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and wild sex parties at luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines.

He pleaded guilty in 2015 and was allowed to stay out of jail at a rental home, on house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor and security guards.

But weeks before he faced sentencing in September 2022, Francis made a daring escape as he cut off his ankle monitor and disappeared. Officials said he fled to Mexico, made his way to Cuba and eventually got to Venezuela.

He was arrested a couple weeks later before boarding a flight at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas. Venezuelan officials said he intended to reach Russia.

He had been in custody in Venezuela ever since, and officials said he sought asylum there.

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

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