US investigators are probing three dozen senior navy officers to determine if they were connected with a scandal that involved top US brass exchanging military secrets for cash, lavish meals and prostitutes.
Investigators from the Department of Justice and the Navy Criminal Investigative Service are probing the officers — who are either admirals or captains in line for promotion to admiral — as part of a multiyear investigation into a Malaysian contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who used his connections with the US Navy to bilk the service out of millions of dollars.
The Washington Post on Friday published an investigation into the scandal, which revealed how the contractor, a wealthy Malaysian whose real name is Leonard Glenn Francis and who was caught in a sting in California in 2013, had cultivated senior officers in the seventh fleet which operates in the Pacific.
Fat Leonard, weighing 350lbs at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty to fraud in California last year. He admitted to routinely overcharging the US Navy for services such as refuelling at ports across Asia where his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, had contracts with the US and other western navies.
One US military official confirmed that criminal investigators were looking into the cases of officers who had served in the Pacific during the years that the bribery had occurred to work out if they were involved in what is seen as the worst national security scandal to hit the US Navy in decades.
The navy suffered a damaging scandal called “Tailhook” in 1991, which involved widespread sexual harassment. But the Fat Leonard case is seen as more serious since it allegedly involves the passing of military secrets to a man operating in a region where the US faces a rising challenge from China.
The probe has drawn in approximately 10 per cent of the roughly 280 admirals in the US Navy. The military official said that while investigators were looking at a large number of top brass, some were only being scrutinised because they had served in the region during the period when the bribery occurred.
According to the Washington Post, Fat Leonard liked to use photos of himself with senior navy officers to impress junior officers or suggest that he had influence that meant they should not question his activities.
We share a professional and moral obligation to continuously examine our motivations and personal conduct, and, where required, adjust our behaviours back in line with our values
According to the Washington Post story, Fat Leonard used the allure of sex with prostitutes as a potent bribe. On one occasion, he allegedly videotaped a navy officer having sex with twin Vietnamese prostitutes in a hotel in Singapore. On other occasions, he procured prostitutes from escort services to entertain officers at parties after official events.
The justice department declined to comment on the details, but said “the investigation into those involved in this long-running corruption scheme continues apace, uncovering substantial wrongdoing”.
On Friday, a court in California unsealed an indictment of Michael George Brooks, a former US naval attaché in Manila, on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and criminal forfeiture in relation to the case.
Mr Brooks was accused of providing Fat Leonard’s company with internal navy documents, obtaining diplomatic clearance for Glenn Defense Marine vessels to enter Philippine harbours and even allowing the contractor to ghost write its own annual evaluation.
According to the indictment, Mr Brooks was accused of receiving gifts of expensive hotel rooms, meals, and prostitutes, which he referred to in coded emails as “shakes” or “chocolate shakes” over a two-year period from the middle of 2006. Mr Brooks referred to Fat Leonard in their email exchanges as “boss”, while the contractor warned his employees to be circumspect in their dealings with the naval officer, saying: “we are surrounded by vipers.”
The Washington Post reported that Admiral John Richardson, head of US naval operations, recently told 200 admirals in Washington that roughly 30 of them were under investigation. The military official told the Financial Times that Adm Richardson held another routine meeting last week during which the scandal was again discussed.
Before that meeting, Adm Richardson sent a memo to senior navy officials, in which he reminded them of the need to uphold the values of the navy, which traditionally has been one of the toughest services in terms of discipline. “We share a professional and moral obligation to continuously examine our motivations and personal conduct, and, where required, adjust our behaviours back in line with our values,” the admiral wrote in the memo seen by the FT.
Approximate number of officers and contractors connected with the case who have pleaded guilty over the scandal
More than 10 officers and contractors connected with the case have pleaded guilty over the scandal, which has sent shockwaves through the navy. It has affected the running of the navy as officers under any suspicion cannot be promoted, which complicates personnel management.
The same California court unsealed a second indictment later on Friday of Bobby Pitts, a former US Navy commander who ran a logistics command in Singapore. It accused him of providing Fat Leonard with a copy of an NCIS report on its investigation along with an internal email showing that officials planned to ask the Thai government if the contractor had billed the navy for force protection services that the Thais had provided for free. In return, Mr Pitts received paid entertainment, including the services of prostitutes, the indictment alleges.
A third criminal complaint unveiled on Friday accused Lieutenant Commander Gentry Debord, a logistics officer, of giving Fat Leonard internal navy documents, including pricing details on his competitors, and paid invoices he knew were inflated. According to the complaint, Cmdr Debord and his family were treated to stays at luxury resorts in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines while he enjoyed trysts with prostitutes. In coded emails with an employee of Fat Leonard, he requested prostitutes, which he called “cheesecakes” and “bodyguards”. One Glenn Marine email referred to the officer as “sex-crazy Debord.” He is accused of conspiracy to commit bribery over a five-year period ending in early 2013.
The three newly named officers could not immediately be reached for comment, and may dispute the charges.