The Malaysian defense contractor who pleaded guilty to bribing Navy officials with sex parties, fancy dinners and alcohol in a massive corruption scandal has escaped just weeks before his sentencing date.
“He cut off his GPS monitoring bracelet on Sunday morning,” the U.S. Marshals Service announced late Monday. “Task Force Officers went to his residence and upon arrival noticed the house was now vacant.”
The Navy is working with the U.S. Marshals Service and other federal agencies “to locate and apprehend Mr. Francis,” a service spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. “Out of respect for the investigative process, we cannot comment further at this time,” the spokesperson added.
Days before he vanished, neighbors recalled seeing moving trucks at Francis’s home, Supervisory Deputy Omar Castillo with the U.S. Marshals’ district in Southern California told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“He was planning this out, that’s for sure,” Castillo told the newspaper, which was the first to report Francis’s escape. Castillo did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.
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Devin Burstein, Francis’s attorney, said in an email to The Washington Post that he had “no comment at this time.”
Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering Navy officials $500,000 in cash bribes in the service’s biggest corruption scandal. According to prosecutors, it was all part of an effort to swindle the military branch out of some $35 million.
Francis’s Singapore-based company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, provided items and services that Navy submarines and ships need in port, such as food, water, waste removal and fuel. But investigators alleged that Francis’s company overcharged for its services and faked some invoices.
He bribed Navy personnel in the Asia-Pacific region in exchange for classified information about ship movements to win more military contracts. Francis offered about $1 million in Cuban cigars; luxury items; meals in Michelin-starred restaurants; and a party with, what prosecutors described as a “rotating carousel of prostitutes,” an investigation by The Post found. Other items included tickets to a Lady Gaga concert and a Gucci fashion show, according to court documents.
The Navy prohibits personnel from accepting gifts worth more than $20. There’s a $50 annual limit on accepting gifts from a single source. But hundreds of active-duty and retired personnel — including some 60 admirals — were under scrutiny for possibly violating military laws or ethics rules as part of the probe, The Post reported. Most were later cleared of wrongdoing.
More than 30 people — including Navy officers, enlisted sailors, contractors and Francis’s employees — have either been found guilty of or pleaded guilty to participating in the plot.
The scope of the scandal has befuddled both civilians and military members since it came to light in 2013, with many wondering: How did the fleet succumb so easily to Francis’s temptations?
“That’s what this case is really about, is how easily Navy souls were sold, Navy honor were sold for prostitutes, for lavish dinners, for money over American interests,” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force officer and military legal expert, told NPR in June.
In a nine-part podcast on the scandal, Francis told Tom Wright, “I’m nonmilitary, I’m just a civilian, I’m not a U.S. citizen, and all these senior naval officers would just snap on my command: ‘Do this,’ and they’ll move the ships for me.”
His reach, nevertheless, came crashing down in 2013, when federal agents arranged a sting operation in a San Diego hotel. Since pleading guilty in 2015, Francis has worked as a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors building cases against others involved in the plot — and shared evidence, including records from Glenn Defense Marine Asia’s computer servers.
Following health complications — including a bout with kidney cancer, swollen knees and a hernia, according to court records — Francis was released from federal detention in 2018 and has been held under house arrest. His home is under surveillance by a security entourage for which he pays.
But that arrangement was one that prosecutors had fought against in 2013 and 2015 — arguing that he might try fleeing for the Mexican border, The Post reported.
That’s one of the scenarios authorities are contending with almost a decade later.
Castillo told the Union-Tribune that international borders and airports are on alert, but Francis might have already crossed into Mexico.
Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story stated that the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Leonard Glenn Francis might have crossed the Rio Grande, according to a U.S. Marshals Service official. The paper reported Francis might have crossed into Mexico. The story has been updated.