‘Fat Leonard’ on the lam: the Navy scandal you never hear about
Fat Leonard is on the lam.
If you’ve never heard of Fat Leonard, don’t worry, you’re not alone. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, then perhaps the greatest trick the Pentagon ever pulled was convincing us all to act as if Fat Leonard didn’t exist either.
Leonard, more accurately known as Leonard Glenn Francis, earned the nickname due to his large size, reportedly 350 pounds, but he earned the federal prison sentence he is now running away from by being at the center of arguably the largest corruption scandal in the history of the United States Navy. For years, Leonard bribed and otherwise corrupted hundreds of Navy officers to look the other way as he systematically overcharged the U.S. government on hundreds of millions in Pentagon contracts.
It’s a scandal of proportions as massive as Fat Leonard himself. The stories of Leonard’s corruption include drugs, prostitutes, Cuban cigars, Lady Gaga tickets, and of course lots of good, old fashioned cash. Eventually, Navy investigators from NCIS (not the TV show, the real Naval Criminal Investigative Service) started to look into it all, so at first Leonard just bought them off too. Eventually though, in 2013, federal agents successfully lured Leonard to a San Diego hotel where they were able to capture him. He eagerly flipped and gave up dozens of the corrupt Navy officers he’d worked with, and was awaiting sentencing as a cooperating witness when, last week, he escaped custody.
As with all things Fat Leonard though, the conditions of his escape raise even more questions about what the heck was really going on. For starters, Leonard was not actually in government custody while he awaited sentencing as the ringleader of an unprecedented corruption scandal. Instead, Leonard was living in a private home in San Diego having been released from federal custody in 2018 for health reasons.
But surely he was guarded? After all, Leonard is a foreign national with significant wealth whose literal job was international logistics. In fact, Leonard was guarded by private security guards, which he paid for. The federal government knew so little about Leonard’s home situation that the judge overseeing his case reportedly had no idea that Leonard had even moved his mother and several of his children into the home with him.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, while Leonard’s neighbors reported seeing U-Haul moving trucks coming and going for days before his escape, federal agents were shocked when Leonard simply cut off his ankle monitor and disappeared. While it’s still possible that Leonard will be caught in the days ahead, what’s beyond clear is that, once again, a man who pled guilty to literally stealing $35 million from the Pentagon is once again showing us how broken the entire system is.
The true legacy of Fat Leonard, whether he is ever caught or not, will be less a sensational story of corruption sure to make a Hollywood blockbuster one day. The bigger story, and the one Washington has yet to grapple with, is the fact we’ve heard so little about it from the news media, and just how common this type of rampant corruption is in the Pentagon’s contracting.
For years, Fat Leonard’s saga has been playing out to a largely uninterested Washington. Let’s remember, this is a scandal that implicated more than 60 admirals and hundreds of U.S. Navy officers, including criminal charges against dozens of them. It involves hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, a not insignificant sum even in the gargantuan budget of the Pentagon. Yet Congress has held zero hearings into the matter. There has been no legislation passed to ensure this type of corruption never happens again. And the scores of “watchdogs” that exist in D.C. and around the country to hunt down and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse have collectively had extremely little to say about this particular example.
There’s an argument some make that there’s no story here because this was the system working as it was supposed to, catching corruption and holding those behind it accountable. Of course, to believe that, one has to ignore that many of those involved have been meted out minimal or no punishment, while the kingpin himself spent years living in relative comfort even before his rather dramatic escape from accountability last week. One also has to be convinced of the slightly absurd argument that a story involving ample amounts of sex, drugs, and money is somehow of no interest to the general public.
A far more likely story is that a town quite literally built on exactly this type of corruption at the Pentagon (albeit typically slightly less ostentatious) is deeply invested in us all not looking too deeply into the whole matter. Just what might the congressional armed services committees find if they spent even a fraction of the time they spend exploring new ways to spend our tax dollars looking into how so much taxpayer money was stolen instead?
If Congress looks more closely into the more than $400 billion it gives every year to Pentagon contractors like Fat Leonard, just how much will it find is being stolen through similar corruption? And if Washington was suddenly forced to grapple with Pentagon corruption, how many think tanks, media outlets, and other parts of the blob might find itself answering uncomfortable questions about just where all that money came from?
Only time will tell if Fat Leonard himself is ever caught again and forced to genuinely pay for his crimes. The question for the rest of us is when are we going to stop running from confronting the questions the whole saga raises about the system of outsourcing and privatizing more than half of the world’s largest defense budget?