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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Scandal That Disgraced the Navy

Beneath the colorful tales of hookers and lobster Thermidor, Fat Leonard’s story is a depressing one.

US-HISTORY-WWII

Fat Leonard: How One Man Bribed, Bilked, and Seduced the U.S. Navy, by Craig Whitlock. Simon & Schuster, 480 pages.

When the feds finally caught up with Leonard Francis in 2013, he admitted to having defrauded the U.S. Navy of $35 million. Everyone knew the real number was much higher. His prosecutors estimated $50 million, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service guessed $100 million, and other higher-ups in the Navy, too embarrassed to speak openly, privately set it somewhere in the billions.

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His story is almost too absurd to be true. For more than a decade, this semi-literate and dangerously overweight Malaysian defense contractor—everyone called him “Fat Leonard”—was the Navy’s best friend and worst enemy. Best friend because he hosted the rowdiest sex parties and drinking bouts in the West Pacific, where he debauched nearly 700 officers, among them 90 admirals. Worst enemy because, in exchange for the good times, he compelled those same officers to hand over classified documents and allow him to shamelessly rip off the Navy for his port services. 

How did Fat Leonard do it? On paper, there was nothing that announced a criminal mastermind. He was a highschool dropout and a divorced dad. In person, there wasn’t anything particularly seductive about him. He dressed poorly, pairing designer suits with novelty ties. He also talked endlessly of his stomach-stapling operation, which, to his regret, did not make him any skinnier. And his business was decidedly unsexy: he specialized in port maintenance for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, docking and servicing ships as they island-hopped across the western reaches of the American empire. 

What made Francis a Legend—another one of his nicknames—was the parties, where the champagne was always top shelf and the hookers high class. These revelries are the subject of Craig Whitlock’s Fat Leonard, which documents the extreme extent to which Francis corrupted the Seventh Fleet, beginning with his rise during the Global War on Terror and concluding with his arrest, imprisonment, escape, and recapture at the end of last year. 

Whitlock is diligent in his reporting, with hundreds of interviews, as well as thousands of emails, texts, receipts, and other FOIA’d documents. Francis’s scheme was simple. He would ply the commanders with booze, hookers, and other gifts, and in return they would look the other way when he sent in inflated bills for his work. Nearly every officer who served in the West Pacific in the early 2000s knew Francis, and many were in his thrall, from the commander of naval forces in the region to the chief of naval intelligence and on down through the ranks. By the time of his capture, no part of the branch was free from his taint.

Whitlock thinks there’s a clean answer for why so many commanders, educated and highly trained men, who, like everyone else in the armed forces, were sworn not to accept exorbitant gifts from civilians—certainly not prostitutes—fell into Francis’s lap. He blames it on 9/11. Francis “exploited the culture of entitlement that infected parts of the U.S. military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Whitlock writes. “Accustomed to civilians placing them on a pedestal in gratitude for their service, some Navy officers felt that they were owed something extra.”

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This is certainly true, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Fat Leonard was such a smash with these Navy men because beneath rank and uniform, they were a lot like him—vain, horny, and selfish. And, crucially, vulgar in their taste. This last shortcoming, so common in self-made men such as Francis, also afflicts successful strivers, exactly the sort of people who graduate from Annapolis with the highest honors and then rise rapidly through the ranks. The self-made man tends to be vulgar to cover his insecurities; the successful striver is most often vulgar because he never developed his taste while he was fighting to the top. The results in both cases are cringe inducing. For Francis and his accomplices alike, the Ritz-Carlton was a top of the line hotel, a Mercedes-Benz a luxury car, and lobster Thermidor a real treat of a meal. No one with discriminating taste would make these judgments, and no civilized person would enjoy associating with those who did.    

The recollections of the commanders whom Francis seduced reveal just how crass their appetites were. One commented that a meal at a French restaurant in Hong Kong where caviar, truffles, duck confit, and baked Alaska were plunked on the table one after another was a “sort of, wow, very nice event, world class event.” After another dinner in the same place, an officer marveled at the supposed splendor of pairing a different wine with each course (standard in any French restaurant worth its salt). In the most outrageous example, Captain David Newland, who controlled the Seventh Fleet’s command flagship, the Blue Ridge, got a little too excited about the champagne at a rooftop dinner in Singapore. He was sipping on a glass of Dom Pérignon when a waiter came out announcing that he would now be serving Cristal. Newland made a show of dumping the Dom Pérignon over the balcony, seventy-three floors to the street below, and held out his glass for a refill. 

None of these are the words or actions of well-bred people; they betray the thought processes of man-children who are accustomed to being sated with little perks, treats. This has long been a problem in the American military, even before 9/11. And when federal prosecutors came knocking at their doors years later, alleging ethics violations and a whole host of other crimes, some admitted as much. “Really?” moaned Rear Admiral David Pimpo, who accepted all sorts of gifts from Francis. “You’re going to make me flush away thirty, twenty-eight years of my career in embarrassment because when I was a younger guy I didn’t know the difference between a $50 steak and a lot more expensive steak?” 

Since Francis’s Navy buddies were pigs about food, it is no surprise that they were also swine when it came to women. There were prostitutes at most of Fat Leonard’s dinners, and for the Navy officers who went above and beyond the call of duty—that is, by leaking the Navy’s port schedules to him—Francis kept other women on speed dial. Sex without love is a dull, repetitive act, and it would be tedious to catalog all the ways in which the United States’s top sailors despoiled the women of the East Indian Archipelago. One anecdote will suffice. At a hotel in Manila, Francis and a number of senior officers took part in orgy, where they used a replica of Douglas MacArthur’s corncob pipe as a sex toy. Francis ended up in bed with Captain Jesus Cantu, a Stanford graduate and promising officer who was stationed on the Blue Ridge. They shared a prostitute until they both passed out.

After his arrest, Francis chuckled that it was little incidents such as this one that allowed him to keep such a tight grip on the Navy. He knew something about it that its officers never admitted: the branch’s claims to “honor, courage, and commitment” were as fraudulent as Fat Leonard’s bills. All those brave men at sea, invested with the full confidence and force of the American government, white as ducks in their immaculate uniforms—no one could ever be so clean underneath. “Can you imagine?” Francis laughed during his deposition. “When they’re too smart, this is what happens.”