Fat Leonard: How One Man Bribed, Bilked, and Seduced the U.S. Navy

  • By Craig Whitlock
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 480 pp.
  • Reviewed by Larry Matthews
  • May 14, 2024

A sickening scandal made possible with help from America’s finest.

Fat Leonard: How One Man Bribed, Bilked, and Seduced the U.S. Navy

I come from a military family. I am the third of five generations to serve in the U.S. Army. We have fought in all major conflicts from World War I to Afghanistan. I grew up on Army bases. I am revealing this to emphasize that I was raised in a “duty, honor, country” environment by people who believed in those things. It is from this perspective that I read Fat Leonard by Craig Whitlock, an award-winning investigative reporter at the Washington Post. (He also wrote the bestselling The Afghanistan Papers.) His research and detail are impressive and give this book weight and importance.

Fat Leonard made me sick, a kind of emotional sickness that overcame me as I turned hundreds of pages of detail about the most sweeping scandal in American military history. It’s a tale of corruption and debauchery that would be hard to believe in a Third World dictatorship, but it happened to the most powerful navy the world has ever known.

Leonard Glenn Francis was a morbidly obese, personable Malaysian national who had charm and an ability to sense weakness in others. The “others” in this case were American sailors. Francis started a company called the Glenn Marine Group to provide dockside services to ships and soon set his sights on U.S. Navy vessels making ports of call in the Pacific Rim. “Above all, he targeted young officers with bright career prospects and loose morals,” writes Whitlock. We’re talking about lieutenants who ignored the U.S. Naval Academy’s motto, “Honor, Courage, Commitment.” In the end, they had no honor, and their commitment was only to their own greed and lust. They were not alone. Captains and admirals were eager to join in, too.

Francis used $1,000-a-head dinners, prostitutes, cash, expensive vacations, and anything else he could devise to exploit the weakness of these officers, who eventually numbered in the hundreds. In doing so, he secured not only lucrative contracts to service the Navy’s fleet at ports in Southeast Asia but also classified material. When he padded his bills, military brass looked the other way.

Francis personally greeted the ships when they entered his ports and was allowed to come aboard, where he was treated as a star. He took high-ranking officers to the finest hotels, furnished them with international prostitutes, and splashed oceans of high-end liquor all over the proceedings, to the delight of some of the academy’s brightest graduates, men who were seen as rising stars.

On one typical occasion in 2007, Francis invited officers and their wives to a $10,000 dinner and photographed the Seventh Fleet chief-of-staff holding bottles of Cristal and Dom Perignon. As Whitlock writes:

“Francis collected photographs and memorabilia at most of his parties. The souvenirs were tangible proof that his Navy moles were on the take, and gave him leverage in case they ever dreamed of double-crossing him…Most of the Seventh Fleet staffers seemed oblivious that they were placing themselves at risk of blackmail.”

Francis corrupted commanders of carrier groups, captains of ships, and even intelligence officers who would feed him classified information about American ship movements in one of the most important maritime zones in the world, information that could be decisive if the U.S. were to go to war with China. He even had a mole in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the famed NCIS. This particular mole was so corrupt that he provided Francis with NCIS files when Francis himself was finally under investigation.

His association with the Navy began in 1992, but the worst corruption took place in the 2000s and 2010s, culminating in 2013, when Francis was arrested after being tricked into coming to San Diego. By then, the scope of the racket was slowly being processed by the Navy and federal prosecutors. Two-star admirals were implicated, as were hundreds of lower-level officers who’d sold out their country for trinkets, money, and sex. Even the wives of some of the admirals were in on the grift, accepting designer handbags, fancy getaways, and jewelry. Fat Leonard is filled with page after nauseating page of American servicemembers trashing their stated values.

Francis stewed in a California jail following his arrest, but his ability to con and to charm stayed with him. His “team” of doctors claimed he was dying of cancer and convinced the court to place him under house arrest during his “treatment.” He was permitted to rent a mansion, where he miraculously recovered. He then cut off his ankle monitor, took an Uber to the Mexican border, and flew to Cuba. He was denied asylum there and ended up in Venezuela, where authorities held him until he could be returned to the States in a prisoner swap.

The entire scandal, possibly the worst in U.S. military history, caused an earthquake at the Defense Department, one that still reverberates. It has left a stain on the Navy that may take generations to wipe away. In a time of global tensions, a rising China, and political instability at home, the story of “Fat Leonard” should be a very loud wake-up call for America.

Larry Matthews is the author of Take a Rifle from a Dead Man and other books.

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