Who is Fat Leonard? The fugitive criminal the United States will receive in return for sending Alex Saab to Venezuela

The former military contractor engaged in one of the most serious corruption scandals in the U.S. Navy’s history and fled from house arrest in 2022

Gordo Leonard
Fat Leonard Francis, in an undated image from U.S. authorities.AP
Iker Seisdedos

This week, demonstrated con artist Fat Leonard fell into a trap. The Venezuelan authorities led him to believe that he was about to gain his freedom, and the former military contractor, the main actor in one of the biggest corruption scandals in U.S. Navy history, told his mother that he was going to be released and that he would be with her soon.

His jailers made him believe this lie to prevent him from challenging a highly charged diplomatic and political decision: an exchange that Venezuela and the United States had secretly negotiated for months, allowing Alex Saab, allegedly President Nicolás Maduro’s front man, to return to Caracas as a hero.

Leonard Glenn Francis was part of the package that Washington demanded in exchange for Saab. The rest of the commitments included the expatriation of 10 US citizens, six of whom Joe Biden’s administration said were “unjustly detained” in the Latin American country, 21 Venezuelan opponents to the Chavista regime and the revocation of three arrest warrants against as many dissidents.

Known as Fat Leonard in the luxury hotels of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong because of his enormous figure (at 1.87 meters/6′1″ tall, he weighed over 200 kilos/441 pounds), Francis realized that he had been tricked only after it was too late. According to The Washington Post, which revealed the juicy details of his extradition, Fat Leonard believed that he was being released so that he could undergo urgent medical treatment and that he would be free by year’s end. Ultimately, he found himself on the islet of Canoan, which belongs to the republic of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean Sea; the island government is Venezuela’s ally. Saab was also sent there from Miami.

This wealthy Malaysian citizen’s notoriety for his criminal actions over the past decade was such that Washington claiming him in the exchange for Saab garnered many headlines in the American press; these articles described Saab—who was extradited in 2021 from Cape Verde on the northwest coast of Africa—as “a Venezuelan diplomat who had been accused of money laundering in Florida.” According to the prosecution, between 2006 and 2013, Leonard swindled $35 million (about €32 million) from the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet (deployed in the Pacific) as a defense contractor.

Bribes in the form of money and luxury items

He was arrested that year in San Diego, where US authorities lured him with another deception: they made him believe that some admirals were waiting for him with a juicy business offer for him. A hundred agents participated in that operation. In 2015, he pleaded guilty to bribing “scores of officials” and to conspiring to commit bribery and defraud the United States. He tried to take about 600 Navy personnel down with him. Over 30 pleaded guilty to these crimes. Five sailors were court-martialed, seven admirals were censured, and the investigation found that dozens of officers had violated the law.

In 2022, Leonard escaped from house arrest in San Diego, where he was allowed to live under guard while awaiting a 25-year prison sentence. To escape, he broke the anklet with which he was geolocated. He traveled first to Mexico and then to Cuba. Two weeks later, he was arrested at the Caracas airport, as he was about to take a flight to Russia, where he had requested asylum. As diplomatic relations between Washington and Caracas were interrupted, the U.S. authorities were unable to secure Fat Leonard’s extradition.

According to the sentencing agreement, during the period in which Fat Leonard, 59, devoted himself to a high life of crime, he bribed some thirty Navy officials with at least half a million dollars in cash, prostitutes, trips and gifts such as “expensive boxes of Cuban cigars and Spanish piglets” to help him in his fraudulent operations, which ended up costing the Navy tens of millions of dollars.

At the head of his company Glenn Defense Marine Asia, Fat Leonard obtained contracts by presenting projects that had such low budgets that they were unrealistic, but they nevertheless achieved his objective: to beat out his competitors in the bidding. After that, there were more bribes to place false invoices, which ended up increasing the money he received to well above the originally accepted prices. In exchange for his gifts, he also obtained classified material on the movements of U.S. ships and submarines, data on confidential contracts, and tips on ongoing police investigations. He used all this information to make a profit.

As Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock recounted, Fat Leonard was also “brazenly ordering his moles [in the Navy] to reroute aircraft carriers to ports he controlled in Southeast Asia so he could more easily rip off the Navy for services such as fuel, tugs, barges, food, water and sewage disposal.”

Last Thursday, Leonard was in Miami, waiting to be sent back to San Diego. Almost nine years after pleading guilty, his sentence awaits him there. But this time he will have to do it in the shadows, in a federal prison.

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