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Navy Grappling With Ethical Issues Raised By Fat Leonard Case

U.S. Navy sailors stand on a deck in this undated photo.

Credit: United States Department of Defense

Above: U.S. Navy sailors stand on a deck in this undated photo.

Navy Grappling With Ethical Issues Raised By Fat Leonard Case


Steve Walsh
, military reporter, KPBS


While the ongoing Fat Leonard legal cases grab headlines, the Navy has been working to change the ethical conduct of its officers.

It has been nearly four years since Malaysian businessman Leonard Francis was arrested in San Diego in 2013, and the Navy is still struggling to answer the embarrassing ethical questions raised by the “Fat Leonard” bribery case.

Francis used wild sex parties to coax Navy officers into steering ships to Pacific ports owned by his company, Glenn Marine Group. Prosecutors have charged 27 people, including 21 naval officers, in connection with the scandal. Seventeen of those people have pleaded guilty, including an active-duty admiral.

Hundreds of pages of court documents show Francis handed out numerous bribes, including concert tickets to Lady Gaga, said Mark Pletcher, the assistant U.S. attorney who has been handling the federal cases in San Diego.

Bribes included “lavish gifts, designer handbags and the services of prostitutes, counting into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Pletcher said.

Francis pleaded guilty in 2015. He has reportedly been working with prosecutors to provide evidence of a bribery scheme that dates back to at least the mid-2000s and involves dozens of naval officer and civilian contractors.

The case has not only been a major criminal matter; it has also been a public embarrassment for the Navy.

Television's "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert riffed on the scandal during a monologue in March, just after a particularly embarrassing round of indictments that implicated officers from the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship vessel of Pacific Fleet. According to the indictment, a sex party at the Shangri La Hotel in Manila involved artifacts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The embarrassment fueled the Navy’s new attention to ethics.

“We’re all human beings. We all face temptation,” said Tom Creely, who teaches ethics at the Naval War College. “A lot of times, people such as Fat Leonard, he tries to find people’s weakness.”

The Navy’s response is still a work in progress. Just now, the Navy is in the middle of scrapping a yearly ethics course that could be taken online. Instead, there will be face-to-face training to encourage an ongoing dialogue. Navy officials are also changing officer evaluations.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: You Tube

Promotional video highlights Glenn Marine Group.

“The tearing-down forces all around us are severe, both inside and outside the military,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said. “We just need to do everything we can to strengthen our people to resist those tearing-down forces so they remain on the road to becoming the leaders that we want.”

The Navy wants officers to prove they can counter those “tearing-down” forces. Beginning sometime this summer, evaluations will emphasize the character aspect of leadership. When officers come up for promotion, the Navy will screen them for ethical standards.

But military observers say making the shift is not as easy as it might sound, in part because of the culture of the Navy. When the scandal began in the mid-2000s, some officers were suspicious of Francis and tried to raise an alarm that he was overcharging the Navy. But Francis was able to maneuver around them, with help from other officers who are now under federal indictment.

“The current system fosters a sense of careerism. It does not pay to rock the boat,” said Dan Grazier, a national security specialist with the Project on Government Oversight.

He said the Navy needs to make it easier for officers to stand up to their superiors without risking their careers.

“If you’re the squeaky wheel, rather than getting greased, you’re probably going to be sledge hammered and thrown away,” Grazier said.

Paulene Shanks Kaurin teaches applied ethics at Pacific Lutheran University. Many of her students are in the military. She said the Navy is quick to put all the blame on individuals.

“And I think that’s problematic,” she said. “You don’t have these many individuals in a system, acting this way without an institution that makes that possible.”

She urges the Navy to dig deeper and examine its own culture, which produced so many officers who buckled under temptation. She said it could still be years before we know whether the Navy has solved the ethical crisis exposed by Fat Leonard.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.


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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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