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The 'Tony Soprano of Singapore'

Contractor Allegedly Plied USN Officers With Parties, Gifts, Concert Tickets

Nov. 16, 2013 - 09:01AM   |  
By SAM FELLMAN   |   Comments
Leonard Glenn Francis ()
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WASHINGTON — The US aircraft carrier John C. Stennis made the record books in September 2012 when it became the first US flattop to pull into Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, a bustling port that borders the strategically important South China Sea.

While a milestone for the US Navy and the ship’s crew, it was a windfall for a deep-pocketed Malaysian “fixer” who now stands accused of bribing and manipulating active-duty officers to steer the carrier there — and to make millions overcharging the service. Indeed, the $2.7 million port call cost more than double the average for carrier stops at other Malaysian ports, according to court documents.

US federal prosecutors allege that Leonard Glenn Francis, the head of Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), the US Navy’s primary husbanding firm in Asia, regularly enticed naval officers to steer warships to more lucrative ports for his firm, by offering bribes including junkets, prostitutes, cash — even “Lion King” tickets. Francis was privy to sensitive ship movements and, in cases like Stennis, even clandestinely orchestrated the ship’s port calls to suit his bottom line, according to the allegations.

Three US Navy officials have been charged in connection with the scandal and three more officers, including a three-star admiral, are under investigation.

The scandal has rocked the officer corps, with many wondering how broadly the fallout could spread, given that Francis has been a fixture for over two decades at port calls across the Pacific, from South Korea to Hong Kong to Australia. He glad-handed ship captains and fleet commanders and earned a reputation for bestowing them with boxes of Cuban cigars or invitations to the sort of lavish parties that made Western Pacific deployments memorable.

A half-dozen retired and active-duty officers agreed to speak with Navy Times, a sister publication of Defense News, all on condition of anonymity while the investigations continue, to share their own experiences working with Francis and GDMA. All expect that more senior officers will come under scrutiny as prosecutors press Francis, who’s now in custody in San Diego.

“If you’re throwing a three-star admiral under the bus, no one’s safe,” said one retired cruiser skipper. Francis, he continued, “has been around for a long time. So the guys who got dinged on this in 2009, 2010 ... Leonard was around for a long time before that.”

'A Used Car Salesman'

The continuing investigations have cast a harsh light on Francis, often known as “Fat Leonard” for his girth, and his extensive ties to fleet staffs and ship captains from nearly two decades of hand-in-glove support across Southeast Asia. Indeed, Francis’ agents have provided the logistics behind many of the fleet’s favorite ports.

For many, Francis is an unmistakable part of a Western Pacific cruise. A tall, heavyset 49-year-old who wears designer shirts and a gold watch, he would step out onto the pier from his armored Hummer, with tinted windows of reinforced glass. Flanked by four or five guards in black suits, he had the air of a visiting dignitary — and came bearing gifts.

He would personally deliver gifts for the strike group commander, for the ship’s skipper, for the supply officer who would later sign the forms authorizing payment. Per Defense Department regulations, a Navy officer can accept gifts of only $20 or less, so Francis’ largesse put many in a bind. He was known for unsolicited gifts such as boxes of Cuban cigars and champagne bottles that cost upwards of $500.

Eager to curry favor with senior officers via pricey gifts or invitations to VIP parties, Francis earned a reputation for “sliminess,” according to one former officer who dealt with him, raising questions about why it took the Navy until 2010 to open its criminal investigation.

“It was never a matter of the quality of service we got from him,” recalled a retired supply corps officer who negotiated directly with Francis and his agents on two Western Pacific cruises. “He was like a used car salesman. You just knew that something wasn’t right.”

Francis’ trademark move was showering the top officers with gifts, often delivering them on the last barge so that the departing ship couldn’t return them, the former supply officer said.

Others who dealt with him recalled an uncomfortable edge to the smooth-talking businessman.

Francis was the “Tony Soprano of Singapore,” said one retired flag officer formerly with US Pacific Command. “There was a nasty side that came out whether you did business with him or not.”

Francis’ lawyer, David Black of Holland and Knight, issued a “no comment,” and Valeriane Toon, head of Glenn Global Corporate Communications, referred all questions to Black.

'A Man of the World'

Francis knew to get in good with his customer. Francis’ business relied on providing extensive support services in port to the ship — everything from delivering parts and provisions to pumping out the ship’s sewage. If the ship wanted it, his job was to make it happen. Many of these items were fixed-price — which the ship could order off a checklist like a customer ordering toppings on a sandwich — and so the profit margin often came down to the extent of services. More Yokohama fenders on the pier equates to more profit.

The overseas fleet is often dependent on fixers such as Francis to advise what’s needed and then get it from the locals. That’s especially true in a new or atypical port, where the ship is more dependent on the husbanding agent to provide all the services — and where fewer port calls gives Francis an opening to overcharge the Navy.

“If I pull my ship into Changi, that is a Singaporean Navy port: They have guards, they have lights, they have security. It costs nothing,” said the retired cruiser skipper. “Now I pull into Pattaya Beach, Thailand. They don’t have any of that. So guess what? Leonard is going to bring all that. And he’s going to charge. He’s going to get his profit.”

In this line of work, relationships mattered. Francis often showed up personally to manage the port calls, especially for aircraft carriers and big deck amphibs whose support was big business for GDMA.

“I guess that’s one of the odd things about Leonard Francis: Most ports you go into, you talk to a senior representative of the [husbanding] company, you don’t talk to the CEO of the company,” said the retired supply corps officer who dealt with GDMA during two Western Pacific cruises. “He seem­ed to make it a personal quest to make sure that he was glad-handing as many senior officers on the ships as he could. And more particular at that O-6 and above level.”

Francis, by all accounts a charismatic businessman, spoke Navy and was a big name-dropper. He loved to tell ship skippers about the fleet commanders he had met with. He also ingratiated himself with many, knowing that today’s department head would be back in five years as a ship skipper.

Francis lived large in Singapore and earned a reputation for out-sized hospitality inside the Navy. He threw barbecues for visiting ships and was also known for inviting officers to swanky parties in places such as Hong Kong.

“He threw an epic party for the officers with free everything and lots of girls,” recalled one former executive officer, who added that he believed the women were mostly escorts there to make it a scene.

Indeed, Fat Leonard parties are renowned in some circles during the two decades he has operated in Asia. Because of this and the ties he has made, he has his defenders. One former attendee even bristled at the media descriptions of Francis as fat, noting that he had shed about 100 pounds after his stomach stapling surgery years ago and guessed he was closer to 250 pounds.

“He is a charming, affable, engaging, friendly fellow,” said the retired cruiser commander, who admitted he’d been to some parties. “He’s a man of the world.”

Francis’ full service allegedly didn’t end at the pier. He was rumored to be able to set up senior officers with golf outings at private clubs or with lavish, $1,000 a night hotel rooms at a fraction of the cost.

Few who dealt with Francis are surprised by the GDMA scandal.

The supply officer said there were rumors for more than a decade about Francis’ largesse, oftentimes seen out in the open, like when he bestowed one ship captain with a Double Magnum of vintage champagne.

“If this is what he’s willing to do out in the open,” he said, “it doesn’t surprise me there were behind-the-door” offerings, too. ■

Christopher P. Cavas, Mark D. Faram and Wendell Minnick contributed to this report.

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