CARACAS, Venezuela — Authorities in Venezuela apprehended the Malaysian defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” after he escaped his sentencing in the U.S. Navy’s worst bribery scandal, Interpol announced Wednesday.
In an investigation that uncovered a staggering level of corruption within the Navy, Leonard Glenn Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribing officials with cash, sex parties and gifts to get confidential information he could use to defraud the Navy.
The hunt for Francis ended with his capture at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía before he could flee the Venezuelan capital, Interpol’s Venezuela director general, Carlos Gárate Rondón, said Wednesday. He said the fugitive traveled to Venezuela from Mexico, with a layover in Cuba, on his way to his final destination: Russia. Gárate said Francis would be handed over to judicial authorities to begin the paperwork for extradition.
The question now is whether Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will allow his extradition. The United States doesn’t recognize Maduro’s government as legitimate; the countries cut diplomatic relations in 2019. Since then, U.S. prosecutors have indicted Maduro and several members of his inner circle on charges of narcoterrorism.
Maduro has sought relief from U.S. sanctions; Francis could become a useful bargaining chip.
Venezuelan authorities generally arrest Red Notice subjects, including those requested by the United States, according to Alí Daniels, director of the Venezuelan advocacy group Access to Justice. They have an interest in complying with Interpol notices, he said, so other governments will respond to their notices.
But extradition is a far more complicated process. An extradition would require U.S. officials to submit paperwork to Venezuela’s foreign ministry. It would then be subject to the Maduro government’s approval. That hasn’t happened since the U.S. government accused Maduro of election fraud and recognized opposition politician Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.
A U.S. request for extradition “would be a victory for Maduro,” Daniels said, “because they would be recognizing him as the government of Venezuela.”
Venezuelan intelligence analyst and criminal investigator Iván Simonovis said the arrest demonstrates how “desperate” Nicolás Maduro is to negotiate with the United States.
“Can you imagine how much this man is worth to the regime?” asked Simonovis, a former Venezuelan police chief who participated in two extradition processes before Hugo Chávez founded the socialist state now headed by Maduro. “This is a very-high profile case, ideal for the regime to begin to negotiate.”
There have been signs relations between the countries are beginning to thaw. Biden administration officials made a rare trip to Maduro’s presidential palace in March to secure the release of two detained Americans and discuss U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil, seeking in part to address soaring gas prices and in part to drive a wedge between Caracas and its close ally Russia. The administration has begun to ease some restrictions on the main U.S. oil company with assets in Venezuela.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced nearly $376 million in new humanitarian assistance “to respond to the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans” in Venezuela and abroad.
Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Francis is “quite an attractive target for the Biden administration and it’s no secret that the Maduro regime has been looking for a prison swap.” But he said “the Biden administration is unlikely to provide significant concessions in return.”
Francis, a Singapore-based businessman whose company serviced Navy ships, fled house arrest in San Diego this month by cutting off his GPS bracelet.
Before his apprehension, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service offered a combined $40,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.
U.S. prosecutors have accused him of an effort to swindle the military branch out of nearly $35 million through his firm, Glenn Defense Marine.
Navy personnel consumed or pocketed about $1 million in bribes, including gourmet meals, Cuban cigars, airline tickets and a party described as a “rotating carousel of prostitutes,” a Washington Post investigation found.
In return, Francis got tips about marine movements and help rerouting vessels to win contracts in the Asia-Pacific region. Bribes also included tickets to a Lady Gaga concert, according to court documents.
The scandal erupted in a 2013 sting operation at a San Diego hotel. After pleading guilty, Francis — who was known as “Leonard the Legend” in some Navy circles — cooperated with prosecutors building cases against others in the plot.
Criminal charges were filed against more than 30 people. Hundreds of military personnel — including some 60 admirals — came under scrutiny. Many were cleared of wrongdoing, The Post has reported.
Craig Whitlock and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.