‘Fat Leonard’ could be Venezuela’s bargaining chip, experts say
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A fugitive defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” who claims to have incriminating sex photos of U.S. Navy brass could become the latest bargaining chip in Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s efforts to secure the official recognition from the Biden administration, experts say.
But it’s unclear how hard the US government will fight for the return of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a shipping company in Southeast Asia who is the central figure in one of the biggest scandals. of corruption in the history of the Pentagon.
He fled house arrest in San Diego on September 4 and was arrested by Venezuelan police on Tuesday as he tried to board a flight at Simon Bolivar International Airport near Caracas. Francis had his first court appearance on Thursday, according to a Venezuelan law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss court proceedings. .
The official, who had been briefed on the matter, said it was now up to the United States to take the next step. US authorities have 30 days to formally request his extradition, which the official considered unlikely given that the Biden administration recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido – not Maduro – as the country’s rightful leader.
Venezuela and the United States have reached an extradition agreement, but it is not clear whether US authorities have made a formal request. In an email, a Justice Department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on extradition-related matters. Even under normal circumstances, extraditions can take months or even years.
The Biden administration does not officially recognize Maduro’s socialist government, has no embassy in Venezuela and has imposed crippling sanctions on the country that have further soured relations.
US indictments against Maduro and several members of his inner circle on charges of narco-terrorism or money laundering have been a major irritant between the countries. The most serious case involves businessman Alex Saab, who was apprehended on a US warrant in 2020 while on a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran. Maduro considers Saab a Venezuelan diplomat and has spared no effort to bring him back.
“I have no doubt that Venezuelans will benefit from (Francis’ arrest), especially because they have felt the effects of the long arm of the American justice system,” said David Smilde, a longtime Venezuela expert. who teaches at Tulane University.
Francis is the mastermind of a massive corruption scheme that has ensnared dozens of naval officers. Francis admitted to wooing them with sex parties in Asia in exchange for classified information about the routes of Navy ships he used to benefit his Singapore-based company.
Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 and faces up to 25 years in prison. While awaiting sentencing, he was housebound in San Diego to receive medical treatment. He provided information to US prosecutors who secured convictions for 33 of the 34 defendants.
But with the case nearing completion and his sentencing hearing just weeks away, he cut off his ankle monitor and disappeared across the border into Mexico. Venezuelan authorities say he later traveled to Cuba, then to Venezuela, and was planning to travel to Russia when he was apprehended.
In his heyday, the hulking man with a large girth and gregarious personality wielded enormous influence as the main point of contact for US Navy ships across Asia. The family-owned ship maintenance company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd. or Singapore-based GDMA, has been supplying ships with food, water and fuel for decades.
He offered officers Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and sex parties at luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines. In return, the commanders went so far as to direct their ships, mostly from the Navy’s 7th Fleet, to ports he controlled so he could conceal up to $35 million in false charges.
It’s unclear what information, if any, Francis has that could further embarrass the U.S. Navy. Still, Smilde said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Francis appear in a Venezuelan government-produced confession video hinting he has more salacious details.
“I’m sure Venezuelans would appreciate that,” he said.
Neither U.S. nor Venezuelan officials released details about how Francis was spending his time on the run or what he planned to do in Russia, but his travels to three countries in two weeks indicate he had access to money and other help.
It is unclear whether Francis had any contacts in Russia offering to protect him, and if he did, what they wanted in return. Francis boasted that he still has incriminating photos and videos of Navy officials.
“What worried the United States the most was that these officers were being corrupted by me, that they would be corruptible by foreign powers,” Francis said in an interview with podcaster Tom Wright, who created a series in nine parts on the case last year. .
Jason Forge, a former San Diego federal prosecutor involved in high-profile extradition cases out of Mexico, said Francis might try to convince Venezuela he has something to offer, but Forge doubts he will. really. Francis, who was placed under house arrest after undergoing surgery, according to court documents, was also an expensive prisoner due to failing health.
“Even assuming he has embarrassing photos and videos of various naval officers, unless it’s Hunter Biden at one of the parties, I just don’t see the United States s ‘care about it,’ he said, referring to Biden’s son.
US officials point out that Venezuela does not appear to have arrested Francis while he was traveling to the country and could easily deport him on its own without any legal process.
Goodman reported from Miami.
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