In the 2000s, the shipping contractor known as “Fat Leonard” had wined and dined his way into classified information from hundreds of U.S. Navy officials. Now, weeks after pulling off a brazen escape that exposed an appallingly lax level of security at his home, where he was supposed to be under house arrest, the man behind the U.S. Navy’s largest-ever corruption scandal has been caught.
Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis was arrested at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela, authorities said on Wednesday.
In a statement posted on Instagram, Carlos Gárate Rondón, the director-general of Interpol Venezuela, said Francis had entered the country from Mexico with a stopover in Cuba, and was about to board a plane to Russia. After his escape from house arrest earlier this month, Francis was put on Red Notice by Interpol—a request for law enforcement worldwide to provisionally arrest fugitives with the aim of having them extradited or met with other legal actions.
He will remain in custody in Venezuela as U.S. authorities plan his extradition.
On Sep. 4, Francis cut off his GPS monitoring ankle bracelet and fled his multimillion-dollar San Diego home, where he had lived under house arrest since 2018 because of his health problems. Despite technically serving as a place of detention, surveillance at Francis’ house was known to be lax, guarded by a private security company paid by Francis. In recent years, there have been recorded security lapses at his residence, including an inspection in 2020 which found no one guarding the house for hours, and a successful attempt by journalists to smuggle a microphone to Francis last year. In the days before his escape, neighbors even saw U-Haul moving trucks arriving at his house.
Arrested in 2013, Francis pleaded guilty to offering $500,000 in bribes to Navy officials, after the court heard that he would shower them with luxurious gifts and lavish parties involving sex workers and expensive liquor. Besides sharing classified information with Francis, Navy officers would redirect military vessels to certain ports so that they could be serviced by Glenn Defense Marine Asia, his maritime ship servicing company, which would then overcharge the Navy.
Prosecutors said that Francis had defrauded the U.S. military of over $35 million—though the amount is believed to be much higher.
The U.S. authorities had announced that they were offering a reward of $40,000 for information leading to the arrest of Francis.
Two days before his arrest was announced by authorities on Wednesday, Francis’ location was revealed in Whale Hunting, a weekly newsletter by investigative journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, who interviewed Francis for their podcast Fat Leonard.
Francis’ choice to flee to Russia was a strategic move, it seems.
Russia had “earmarked Leonard as a potential asset” early on, Wright wrote in his newsletter on Thursday, adding that both Russian and Chinese embassy staff had approached Francis after finding out the influence he wielded in the U.S. Navy.
Since he pleaded guilty to bribery in 2015, Francis had staved off serving his sentence by becoming a witness for the prosecution in a separate trial involving five former naval officers—though he was somehow never called to testify. His own sentencing, originally scheduled for Thursday, was met with his conspicuous absence as the judge was informed that he is currently in custody in Venezuela.
On Thursday, his defense lawyer told the judge that he planned to file a motion severing ties with Francis because of an “irreparable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship.”
“This turn of events raises several issues, and obviously will have an impact on other cases,” U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino said on Thursday. The Fat Leonard scandal has implicated over 200 Navy officers and seen dozens charged. Four former officers convicted of conspiracy, bribery, and fraud in June are set to be sentenced in October.
Another hearing for Francis has been scheduled for Dec. 14, Sammartino said. Prosecutors asked the court to note Francis’ absence at the hearing when considering his sentence, which before his escape attempt stood at 25 years in prison.