Who is 'Fat Leonard' and how did he end up as part of the Venezuelan prisoner swap?
The notorious and once portly defense contractor known as "Fat Leonard," who scammed the U.S. Navy out of millions of dollars for more than a decade, is being extradited to the U.S. as part of a prisoner swap deal with Venezuela, the White House announced on Wednesday.
Leonard Glenn Francis, now 59, escaped from house arrest in San Diego in September 2022 after cutting off an ankle tracking bracelet shortly before a sentencing trial for his role behind one of the largest corruption scandals in the country's military history that ensnared more than two dozen U.S. Navy officials. But his life on the run was short lived. Francis was captured weeks later by authorities in Venezuela where he has remained in custody until now.
"His return to the United States will now ensure that he is held fully accountable for his crime, as well as for his attempt to escape from justice," a senior Biden administration official said on Wednesday, adding that Francis will be sent to a federal detention facility to await his delayed sentencing.
What did "Fat Leonard" do?
In 2015 Francis pleaded guilty to plying more than 30 officials, including more than two dozen naval officers, with a slew of bribes to gain lucrative contracts for his Singapore-based company Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd.
According to the Department of Justice, officers were lavished with a criminal potpourri of cash, prostitutes, parties and luxury travel and items such as "Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pig."
Francis also admitted to overcharging the Pentagon for made up services. In all, the Department of Justice said he bilked the Navy out of $35 million, leading officials to call it "one of the most brazen bribery conspiracies in the U.S. Navy's history."
In exchange, officers handed over classified and other sensitive material to Francis' company, which had a contract to resupply and service Navy ships in Asia.
How did Francis escape?
After pleading guilty to the fraud and bribery charges against him, the disgraced Malaysian businessman was permitted to remain under house arrest due to his poor health at the time. Under the plea deal, he could receive medical care for advanced kidney cancer as long as he retained round-the-clock private security and cooperate with the Justice Department. Stars and Stripes reported Francis provided "incriminating evidence against hundreds of Navy personnel."
But on Sept. 4, 2022, three weeks before his sentencing, Francis snipped off the GPS tracking device around his ankle that was supposed to ensure he could not flee. Neighbors in Francis' tony neighborhood later said they had seen U-Haul vehicles coming and going from the home in the days leading up to his escape, The Associated Press reported. And when officials arrived at the fugitive's home, they found no security guards at the residence.
Francis successfully made his way across the border into Mexico then caught a flight to Cuba. According to Stars and Stripes, Cuban authorities refused to let him stay in the island country, so he made his way to Venezuela. Francis then applied for asylum at the Russian embassy in Caracas, the outlet reported. He had not yet received a response from Moscow when he was arrested attempting to board a flight to Russia at the Caracas airport on Sept. 20, 2022.
Without diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, Francis has been stuck in limbo as the State Department and United Nations officials moved to secure his release.
What happens next?
As of now, there is no date set for Francis' sentencing.
His plea agreement stated he faced up to 25 years behind bars, though it was widely expected that would be greatly reduced due to his cooperation with prosecutors. But whatever leniency he may have earned is likely non-existent after embarrassing the U.S. government with his bolt for freedom that in turn launched an international manhunt.
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