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Three U.S. naval officers censured in ‘Fat Leonard’ corruption probe

Rear Admiral David R. Pimpo, a former commander with the Naval Supply Systems Command. (NA/US Navy)

Three U.S. admirals were censured for dining at “extravagant” banquets in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore and accepting other gifts from an Asian defense contractor at the center of a bribery scandal that continues to rattle the highest ranks of the Navy, according to documents released late Friday.

One dinner alone cost $23,061, or about $768.72 for each of the 30 people who attended. To get around ethics rules, the admirals reimbursed the contractor — a Malaysian national known in Navy circles as “Fat Leonard” — but only for a fraction of the expense, writing personal checks for between $50 and $70 each, the documents show.

The incidents occurred nearly a decade ago, while all three officers — Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, Rear Adm. Terry B. Kraft and Rear Adm. David R. Pimpo — were assigned to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group. Each was forced to retire this summer.

The admirals were officially censured for misconduct in February, although Navy officials at the time disclosed few specifics. On Friday night, the Navy released a handful of documents that shed new light on the case but withheld many others. Journalists had sought the public records for the past five months under the Freedom of Information Act.

None of the three admirals responded to requests for comment sent by e-mail or through a Navy spokesman.

Pimpo, a supply officer, was singled out for also accepting sightseeing and shopping tours from the contractor, as well as lodging for himself and other officers while in Hong Kong.

In addition, Pimpo and Miller were censured for accepting ship models of the USS Reagan but reimbursing the contractor for far less than the estimated market value of $870 for each of the replicas.

Although the admirals were not disciplined beyond receiving formal letters of rebuke, they are the highest-ranking casualties so far of a scandal involving a Singapore-based firm that bilked the Navy out of an estimated $20 million.

The firm, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, has admitted to bribing Navy officials with prostitutes, envelopes of cash and luxury travel in exchange for sensitive information about ship movements and internal business practices. The company then routinely overcharged the Navy for supplying its ships during Asian port visits.

Six current and former Navy officials have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in federal court and are awaiting sentencing. Two others have been charged with corruption but have pleaded not guilty.

The mastermind of the scheme was Leonard Glenn Francis, the head of Glenn Defense Marine. A charismatic Malaysian known in Navy circles as Fat Leonard for his girth, he has pleaded guilty to bribing “scores” of U.S. Navy officials with sex, cash, spa treatments, Cuban cigars and other luxury goods.

Justice Department officials have said that Francis is cooperating with prosecutors and that their criminal investigation — which first became public in 2013 — is far from over.

The slow-moving investigation has paralyzed large segments of the Navy’s chain of command. Although Navy and Justice officials have declined to specify how many people are under scrutiny, promotions and reassignments for many officers who worked directly with Francis over the years have slowed or stalled.

Among those whose careers have been stuck in limbo is the director of naval intelligence, Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch. The Navy announced he was under investigation 20 months ago and suspended his access to classified information — a major handicap for a top intelligence official.

Another high-ranking Navy intelligence official, Rear Adm. Bruce F. Loveless, also had his access to classified material suspended but has since been transferred to another job. He remains under scrutiny for his ties to Francis.

The full list of those under investigation is one of the most tightly held secrets in the Navy.

Justice Department officials have said that more criminal prosecutions are likely, especially since Francis pleaded guilty in January and agreed to cooperate.

Meanwhile, the Navy has said it expects to discipline personnel whose misconduct was not criminal in nature but who may have violated ethics rules. The Navy has set up a special review authority to investigate such cases but has released almost no information about its work.

The Navy relieved Kraft as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Japan in February and replaced Pimpo as a commander with the Naval Supply Systems Command; both were effectively forced to retire within the past few weeks.

Pimpo will lose a star and retire with the rank of captain because he did not log enough service time as an admiral prior to his censure. Kraft will keep his rank as a two-star admiral as he retires, Navy officials said.

Miller, the former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, will be permitted to retire on Aug. 1 as a three-star admiral, according to the Navy. He had sought to retire last year before his involvement in the scandal became public, but his discharge was put on hold while the investigation unfolded.