The nature of their relationship had been a long-running mystery. In November 2013, the Navy announced on a Friday night that it had suspended Branch’s access to classified material because he was under criminal investigation by the Justice Department for his ties to Francis. The contractor’s firm held lucrative deals to provide supplies, fuel and port services to Navy vessels in Asia.
For years, Navy and Justice officials remained silent about the investigation, although Navy leaders privately expressed frustration that federal prosecutors were taking so long to review the case. In an unusual twist, the Navy allowed Branch to keep serving as its intelligence boss for more than 1,000 days even though he was barred from reading, seeing or hearing military secrets. Branch retired from the military in October 2016, but the investigation of his conduct continued.
In September 2017, on another Friday night, the Navy announced in a brief statement that the Justice Department had referred the case to the Pentagon after finally deciding not to charge the three-star admiral. Cryptically, Navy officials said they had taken “appropriate action” against Branch for unspecified wrongdoing, but they would not provide details and declared the case closed.
Navy files obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act shed some light on the matter for the first time. The Navy stripped Branch’s name from the documents, but they contain other information that matches the admiral’s military service record. Branch declined to comment but confirmed that the files pertained to his case.
The heavily redacted documents indicate that Branch first met Francis in 2000 when serving as an officer aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier. During a port visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Branch attended a dinner paid for by Francis’s firm, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, and improperly accepted a ceremonial dagger as a gift, according to the documents.
The Navy investigated allegations that Branch also attended a private party that evening hosted by Glenn Defense and that the contractor gave him drinks, “the services of a prostitute” and a Malaysian pewter tea set. In the end, however, the Navy concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that Branch was at the party with the prostitute or accepted the tea set.
Five years later, Branch and Francis met again. This time, Branch was the commanding officer of another aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz. As the ship prepared to visit Southeast Asia, he exchanged emails with Francis. The Navy refused to release the messages, but The Post obtained copies from other sources close to the investigation.
“You may not believe this, but I am no longer a California Red Wood,” Francis wrote in a May 17, 2005, email in which he offered to arrange dinner, drinks, and “a few rounds of great golf at the most scenic courses” in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. “I actually lost 300 pounds since we last met in 2000 but rest assured I’m still the same old fun loving Leonard you all know but only in a trimmer body!”
“Good to hear from you Leonard and congrats on losing the weight,” Branch replied. “We are looking forward to HK and KL. It will be good to see you.”
When the Nimitz arrived in Hong Kong two weeks later, Branch invited Francis on board the aircraft carrier for a private lunch. During the port visit, Francis returned the favor by hosting Branch and about 20 other officers from the Nimitz for a lavish dinner at a restaurant overlooking Hong Kong harbor.
The meal cost about $690 per person and featured musical entertainment, Cohiba cigars, Château Lynch-Bages red wine and Rémy Martin cognac, according to a copy of the bill obtained by The Post.
After the Nimitz left port, Branch transmitted an official communication from the ship known as a Bravo Zulu message, a Navy term meaning “well done.” Copied to several Navy headquarters, the message praised Francis and his company for their “outstanding” and “over the top customer service.”
The following month, Branch and Francis met again when the Nimitz visited Kuala Lumpur. Once more, Navy officials investigated allegations that Francis invited Branch to a private party with booze and prostitutes on July 5, 2005, but found “insufficient evidence” to prove that the officer attended the sex party, Navy documents show.
After the Nimitz departed Kuala Lumpur, Branch sent another Bravo Zulu message extolling Francis and his company. “True to form Leonard, you provided absolutely the highest quality service to my ship and crew,” Branch wrote. “Your commitment to the Navy and the professionalism you and your staff displayed is unmatched.”
Navy officials found that Branch accepted illicit gifts from Francis on other occasions, including a coffee-table book from Singapore and multiple gifts of cigars, according to the Navy documents.
Although the Navy cited Branch for four counts of misconduct, it does not appear that it imposed any penalties.
In a Sept. 8, 2017, memo, Adm. Philip S. Davidson — the commander assigned by the Navy to hand out discipline in the “Fat Leonard” scandal — stated that he “personally addressed” the matter with Branch “through administrative action.”
That is language the Navy typically uses when counseling a sailor not to do something again. A Navy spokesman declined to comment.