The San Diego Union-Tribune
Three months after the corrupt defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” brazenly, and easily, escaped from his luxury home detention arrangement in San Diego, the circumstances behind how the Malaysian tycoon pulled it off are still under wraps.
Demands from members of the U.S. House and Senate for more details about Leonard Francis’ embarrassing escape have been brushed off by the Department of Justice and met with silence from the Administrative Office of the Courts, which handles the nonjudicial, bureaucratic business for the federal courts.
And last week, San Diego federal Judge Janis Sammartino, who oversaw Francis’ unusual, yearslong medical furlough that allowed him to live outside of jail, rebuffed a demand from defense lawyers for more details about Francis’ health and living conditions.
“Who was or wasn’t responsible for Leonard Francis’ supervision and monitoring is not the issue,” Joseph Mancano, the lawyer for convicted retired Capt. David Newland, told Sammartino during a hearing Wednesday. Instead, he said, the issue was that the defense was entitled to that information before the trial, to show jurors that while Francis had been a cooperating witness for years, he was given extraordinary benefits by the government.
Newland is one of four former Navy officers who were convicted of conspiracy and bribery charges at a lengthy trial this year. In post-trial motions, they said Francis’ living conditions — renting a multimillion-dollar mansion in the Carmel Valley area, with servants, all the food he could afford, and what turned out to be lax security — should have been disclosed before trial. They also said Francis flouted conditions of his release that prohibited him from possessing cellphones, computers or electronic devices.
For now, the questions surrounding Francis’ escape remain unanswered. After slicing off a GPS tracking bracelet early on the morning of Sept. 4, Francis fled across the border into Mexico. He continued on to Cuba and then Venezuela, where he was arrested by Interpol agents 16 days after his flight.
Francis has asked for asylum there. The U.S. government can seek his extradition, but the diplomatic relationship between the two nations is fraught, and getting him back to San Diego could prove challenging. In October the Venezuela Supreme Court gave the U.S. two months to file an extradition request.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego declined to comment when asked if an extradition request has been filed yet. Previously, the DOJ said it does not comment on extradition requests until the subject of the request is back in the U.S.
The DOJ and Pretrial Services, the court agency in charge of monitoring his home detention, have declined repeated requests by the Union-Tribune for more information about his escape.
Congress is inquiring, too. In October, Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland slamming the “collective failure” by the Department of Justice in connection with Francis’ flight. It sought documents and communications about Francis among DOJ employees; between DOJ employees and state or local law enforcement agencies; and between DOJ employees and U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services.
The request has not been fulfilled. In an Oct. 28 court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Chu said no documents have been provided to Congress because of “long-standing policies regarding congressional inquiries and requests for information during the pendency of criminal matters …”
In November, Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a similar request to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The senator wanted information about how Francis was supervised by Pretrial Services as well as information on his living arrangements and other subject areas like the exact timeline of his escape. He said he wanted a response by Nov. 23, but a spokesman for Grassley said Friday none had been received.
Francis is the former chief executive of Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a ship-servicing company that supported Navy vessels in Asian ports. For decades, prosecutors said he plied Navy officials with gifts and cash including meals, the services of prostitutes and travel.
In return, many of the beneficiaries helped Francis by giving him information on ship movements or pending Navy contracts, running interference against ship-servicing companies competing with Francis, and keeping him apprised of investigations by suspicious government officials into GDMA’s business.
In 2015, he pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges in a massive government investigation and agreed to cooperate with the probe. However, since late 2017 he has been living outside of the downtown federal lockup under the medical furlough arrangement. His release was approved and supervised by Sammartino and Pretrial Services.
His precise medical problems were not disclosed for years, but it was known that he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2017. Defense lawyers for the former Navy officers have said they were entitled to more information on his medical condition and living arrangements, but motions filed before the trial seeking that information were rebuffed.
After the trial and after Francis’ escape, defense lawyers again pressed for the information. In motions, they contended Francis’ medical condition was not so dire, and that the required round-the-clock private security he was paying for — which was a condition of his release — was not round the clock or robust.
Some guards told reporters after the escape that they were largely confined to a windowless garage at the home, that Francis had family members living with him and access to phones and computers.
The lawyers contended that Francis had perpetrated a fraud on the court and said prosecutors had enabled it by continuing to endorse the arrangement so Francis would continue to help them.
But at a hearing Wednesday, Sammartino largely rejected the requests for more information. She said if the prosecutors had any information that Francis had defrauded the court that it should be turned over, but further details about his medical condition and the furlough were not needed by the defense.
The issue is not totally over, however. Defense lawyers will likely raise it as part of a sweeping motion for a new trial to be filed in March. If the verdict stands, sentencing for the officers is now set for August 2023.