‘Fat Leonard’ back in court in San Diego after escape

by Tommy Grant

SAN DIEGO — Defense contractor Leonard “Fat Leonard” Francis, who fled to South America weeks before he was scheduled to be sentenced in one of the biggest bribery schemes in U.S. military history, said Thursday that he wants new attorneys now that he is back in U.S. custody after a Venezuelan prisoner swap.

An enigmatic figure who was 6-foot-3 and weighed 350 pounds at one time, Francis was visibly thinner at the hearing in U.S. District Court. He told the judge he has agreed to end his relationship with Warren & Burstein, the law firm that has represented him during much of the decadelong salacious saga involving dozens of American Navy officers.

The change was initially requested by the firm, which made the decision with a “heavy heart,” attorney Jeremey Warren said. “We have a loyalty to our clients. We don’t like to step away.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard objected to the change, saying it would set back Francis’ sentencing yet again because it would take time for a new attorney to get up to speed.

Sheppard said the prosecution also planned to file new charges against Francis, given his daring escape in 2022, when he fled house arrest in San Diego for South America. But that won’t happen until after Francis is sentenced.

U.S. District Judge Sammartino acknowledged the potential for delay but said that it would be minor given the long history of the case.

Francis, a Malaysia national who owned and operated his family’s ship servicing business, Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd., was arrested in 2013 in a sting operation in San Diego. GDMA supplied food, water and fuel to U.S. Navy vessels.

In 2015, the defense contractor pleaded guilty to offering more than $500,000 in cash bribes, along with other gifts and wild sex parties in Southeast Asia, to Navy officials, defense contractors and others. The scheme allowed him to bilk the maritime service out of at least $35 million by getting commanders to redirect ships to ports he controlled and overcharging for services, according to the prosecution.

After escaping, he was arrested and held in custody in Venezuela until being returned to the U.S. last month. The large prisoner swap also saw the release of 10 American detainees in exchange for the Biden administration freeing Alex Saab, a Colombian-born businessman and close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who had been charged in the U.S. in a money laundering case.

Francis faced up to 25 years in prison.

While awaiting sentencing in 2022, Francis was hospitalized and treated for renal cancer and other medical issues. After leaving the hospital, he was allowed to stay in a rental home under house arrest, with a GPS ankle monitor and security guards.

But three weeks before his scheduled sentencing that September, he snipped off his monitor and made the brazen escape, setting off an international search. Officials said he fled to Mexico, made his way to Cuba and eventually reached Venezuela.

He was arrested more than two weeks after his disappearance as he was about to board a flight at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas. Venezuelan officials said he intended to go to Russia.

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