Branch has been under scrutiny for his ties to Leonard Glenn Francis, an Asian defense contractor commonly known in Navy circles as Fat Leonard. Francis has pleaded guilty in federal court to bribing scores of Navy personnel with cash, prostitutes and luxury hotel rooms in exchange for classified or sensitive information about ship movements and competitors’ secrets.
Several Navy officers have pleaded guilty in the case so far, and more than 100 other personnel remain under investigation for possible criminal or ethical violations in what is shaping up as the worst corruption scandal in Navy history.
Although Branch has not been charged or indicted, federal prosecutors haven’t cleared him, either — leaving Navy officials in a tight spot and unsure whether to replace him. As a result, he has been stuck in limbo for almost two-and-a-half years: nominally in charge of the Navy’s secrets even though he’s not allowed to know any.
The Navy has taken steps in the past to replace Branch, but never actually went through with it for a variety of reasons.
In November 2014, the Navy prepared a nomination package for Rear Adm. Elizabeth Train to become the service’s intelligence head. But her promotion was put on hold after someone filed a complaint against her with the Navy inspector general.
Pentagon officials said Train was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. Her nomination was finally sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee in September — where it sat untouched for months.
This week, the Navy withdrew Train’s nomination. In a statement, Adm. John Richardson, who took over as the chief of naval operations in the fall, said he decided he wanted to put someone else in charge of naval intelligence.
“As the scope of the rapidly changing information warfare environment has grown, I decided to go in a different direction,” Richardson said. He lauded Train’s service, but with her promotion nixed, she is expected to retire.
Navy officials said that Tighe’s nomination was still working its way through official channels at the Pentagon but that her name is expected to be forwarded to the White House and the Senate in the coming weeks.
Assuming that Tighe is confirmed by the Senate, Branch will be out as chief of naval intelligence, but his ultimate fate remains unclear. The Navy is unlikely to allow him to retire as long as he remains under investigation in the “Fat Leonard” case. Officials said it is anybody’s guess how long that will take to resolve.