Officials: Navy bribery case fugitive tried to get to Russia

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Since escaped two weeks agoofficials say the fugitive Malaysian defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” — who orchestrated one of the U.S. Navy’s biggest bribery scandals — zipped between countries to find a place where he could become virtually untouchable by U.S. authorities.

It almost worked.

After cutting off an ankle monitor and escaping house arrest in San Diego on Sept. 4, U.S. and Venezuelan officials say Leonard Glenn Francis crossed the border into Mexico and then traveled to Cuba and Venezuela, where he was arrested Tuesday in Simón Bolívar International airport outside Caracas.

Francis planned to travel to Russia, according to Interpol Venezuela Director General Carlos Garate Rondon, who revealed the arrest in a statement published Wednesday on Instagram. He said Francis would be handed over to the country’s judicial authorities to initiate extradition proceedings.

Greg Rinckey, a former Army attorney who is now in private practice, said he believes Francis “tried to play that angle of using some countries to get outside the jurisdiction of the US Marshals Service.”

“Looks like they caught him just in time,” Rinckey said. “If he made it to Russia, I don’t think the Russians would have handed him over to us.”

And while Venezuela and the United States have an extradition treaty, the U.S. government may face an uphill challenge in returning to American soil. The Biden administration does not officially recognize the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro, has no embassy in Venezuela and has imposed crushing sanctions on the country, which have further soured relations. Law enforcement cooperation between the two countries is rare.

There was no immediate word on when Francis might be extradited to the United States

The arrest came on the eve of his scheduled sentencing in federal court in California for a bribery scheme that spanned years.

Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 and had been allowed to remain at the home to receive medical treatment while he cooperated with prosecutors. With his help, prosecutors secured convictions against 33 of 34 defendants, including more than two dozen naval officers.

The towering man with a wide girth and gregarious personality had incredible influence as the main point of contact for US Navy ships in ports throughout Asia. His family’s ship services business, Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd. or GDMA, provided food, water and fuel to ships for decades. He plied cops with Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and wild sex parties in luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines. In return, commanders gave him classified information and steered their ships, mostly from the Navy’s 7th Fleet, to ports he controlled so he could cover up as much as $35 million in bogus charges.

Among those he befriended was a Russian diplomat, Francis told podcaster Tom Wright, who did a nine-part series on the case. In an episode broadcast last October, Francis said he lived just a “stone’s throw” from the Russian embassy in Singapore and that the Russian diplomat would stop by his home uninvited to drop off vodka and other gifts.

It is unknown whether Francis turned to his Russian friends for help while on the lam.

A law enforcement official familiar with the case told The Associated Press that authorities tracked Francis using a cell phone number they obtained. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Francis was in a Caracas neighborhood on Tuesday.

Venezuelan authorities deployed a team of officers at the airport after a taxi driver tipped them off that Francis was leaving a hotel and heading there.

The official said Francis intended to board a flight to the Venezuelan Caribbean island of Margarita, which Venezuela wants to make a popular destination for Russian tourists because of its pristine beaches accessible by ferry or plane from the mainland. The government said last month it plans to offer five flights a week between Margarita and Moscow from October 1. Signs in Russian can already be seen on the island.

The official said Francis later told authorities his final destination was Russia.

It is unclear if Francis had contacts in Russia who offered to help, and if he did what they wanted in return. Francis boasted of still having compromising photos and videos of Navy officials.

“What really worried the United States the most was that these officers were being corrupted by me, that they were going to be corrupted by the foreign powers,” Francis said in one of the podcast’s episodes.

His sentencing was still held Thursday to deal with the changed situation. When he returns, Francis will need new lawyers.

His defense attorney, Devin Burstein, told the judge he plans to file a motion to sever their bond because of an “irreparable breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.” Burstein did not mention his client’s arrest in Venezuela.

And when Francis returns, prosecutors indicated he will face an even longer sentence, asking the court to note that he did not show up for his sentencing as ordered. That could add five years to his potential 25-year sentence if he is ultimately charged with failure to appear.

U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino set a status hearing for Francis on Dec. 14, with the caveat that all parties could meet sooner depending on how events unfold.

“This reversal raises several issues and will obviously have an impact on other cases,” she said.

Sentencing is scheduled for October for four naval officers who went to court and were convicted in the case.

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Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela. AP writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.

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