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Trials are finally wrapping up in the 'Fat Leonard' bribery case


It's known as the Fat Leonard case. Over the past nine years, more than two dozen naval officials have pleaded guilty to taking bribes to help Leonard Francis defraud the U.S. Navy. Now the trials are finally wrapping up. Steve Walsh of KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It was a corruption scandal of epic proportions. Malaysian defense contractor Leonard Francis used U.S. Navy officers to steer ships to his ports in the Western Pacific, greasing the wheels with gifts, sex workers and lavish parties with scantily clad women. Vice Admiral Craig Fuller attended at least one party as a ship's captain. Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed him about it during a confirmation hearing in 2018.


ELIZABETH WARREN: What do you say to women officers when they see that this is the kind of event you have attended?

CRAIG FULLER: Senator, I have always had the utmost respect for all service men and women.

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WALSH: The Navy cleared Fuller and other officers of wrongdoing. Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to defrauding the Navy of at least $35 million. Dan Grazier is with the Project On Government Oversight. He says hundreds of officers watched Francis, widely known as Fat Leonard for his size, lay out the red carpet.

DAN GRAZIER: It just became kind of the way business was done within the Seventh Fleet. You know, the longer it went on, the more people got involved in it and the more normalized that behavior became. And so we ended up with the massive scandal that we have.

WALSH: Among the Navy officials on Francis' payroll was an agent for the Navy's criminal service who pleaded guilty to taking bribes to keep Francis up to date on the Navy's own investigation. Still, Senator Warren's exchange is one of a handful of times the so-called Fat Leonard case has come up on Capitol Hill during the nearly decade-long probe. Again, Dan Grazier.

GRAZIER: It's shocking how little people, even today in Washington, really even know about Fat Leonard. It rarely makes the news here.

WALSH: Once the scandal broke, the Navy took away some of the authority officers have to decide which ports to use. Though the Navy tightened up the paperwork, it hasn't taken a hard look at the underlying culture which allowed officers to condone the party atmosphere. Pauline Shanks Kaurin teaches ethics at the Naval War College.

PAULINE SHANKS KAURIN: It's not something, at least in my circles, that the Navy is talking a lot about. And so I'm not sure that we've learned the lessons or have thought about what this means for Navy culture.

WALSH: Francis was arrested in San Diego in 2013, but Pauline Shanks Kaurin says the War College still hasn't incorporated a case study about the massive bribery scandal into its ethics curriculum.

SHANKS KAURIN: One senior leader said to me, listen. Like, I know people who were involved and I've heard from other senior leaders things like, well, I had a friend, a good friend whose career was ruined because of this. And people don't want to talk about it.

WALSH: When students talk about it in class, they talk about different spanks for different ranks, the notion that higher ranking officers were treated differently. Ron Carr, a retired Navy captain, says the case casts a long shadow over everyone who served in the Pacific during the 2000s and early 2010s. Carr was a logistics officer on board the flagship at the center of the indictments.

RON CARR: It really has put mud for all of us who were not involved with this because there's always that assumption that potentially maybe we just didn't get caught.

WALSH: Nearly a decade later, as the Fat Leonard case draws to a close, it's still unclear how much the scandal has changed Navy culture. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh