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‘Fat Leonard’ may be Venezuela bargaining chip, experts say

SAN DIEGO (AP) – A fugitive defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” who claims to have incriminating sex photos of US Navy brass could become the latest bargaining chip in Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s bid for official recognition, experts say from the Biden administration, according to experts.

But it’s unclear how hard the US government will fight for the return of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a Southeast Asian ship services company who is the central character in one of the biggest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.

He fled home to San Diego on Sept. 4 and was arrested Tuesday by Venezuelan police when he tried to board a flight at Simon Bolivar International Airport outside of Caracas. Francis first appeared in court on Thursday, according to a law enforcement official in Venezuela who spoke to The Associated Press Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss legal proceedings.

The official, who was briefed on the matter, said it is now up to the United States to take the next step. US authorities have 30 days to formally request his extradition, something the official considered unlikely given the Biden administration recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido – not Maduro – as the country’s legitimate ruler.

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Venezuela and the United States have an extradition agreement, but it is not clear whether the US authorities have made a formal request. In an email, a Justice Department spokesman said the agency will not comment on rendition issues. Even under normal circumstances, renditions can take many months or even years.

The Biden administration does not officially recognize Maduro’s socialist government, has no embassy in Venezuela and has imposed crushing sanctions on the country that have further embittered relations.

US charges against Maduro and several members of his inner circle on charges of narco-terrorism or money laundering have been a major annoyance between the countries. The most serious case concerns businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in 2020 on a US arrest warrant while he made a refueling stop in Cape Verde on his way to Iran. Maduro considers Saab a Venezuelan diplomat and has spared no expense to get him back.

“I have no doubt that Venezuelans will feast on (Francis’s arrest), especially as they have felt the effects of the long arm of the US justice system,” said David Smilde, a veteran expert on Venezuela and lecturer at the Tulane University.

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Francis is the mastermind behind a massive bribery scheme that has trapped dozens of Navy officials. Francis admitted he courted them with sex parties in Asia in exchange for classified information about the routes of naval vessels he used to help his Singapore-based company.

Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 and received a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. While awaiting sentencing, he was placed under house arrest in San Diego to receive medical care. He provided information to US prosecutors securing the convictions of 33 of the 34 defendants.

But when the case was nearing its conclusion and his conviction just weeks away, he cut off his anklet and disappeared across the border into Mexico. Venezuelan authorities say he went next to Cuba, then Venezuela, and was planning to go to Russia when he was detained.

In his heyday, the towering man of broad girth and sociable personality wielded enormous influence as a major point of contact for US naval vessels in Asia. His family’s ship maintenance company, Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd. or GDMA, supplied ships with food, water and fuel for decades.

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He bombarded officers with Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and sex parties in luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines. In return, commanders went so far as to send their ships, mostly of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, to ports he controlled so that he could hide as much as $35 million in false charges.

It’s unclear what information Francis has that could further embarrass the US Navy. Still, Smilde said he wouldn’t be surprised if Francis shows up in a Venezuelan government-produced confession video suggesting he has more lecherous details.

“I’m sure the Venezuelans would be happy with that,” he said.

Neither US nor Venezuelan officials have released details of how Francis spent his time on the run or what he planned to do in Russia, but his trips to three countries over a two-week period indicate he had access to money and other resources. staff.

It’s unclear if Francis had contacts in Russia who offered to protect him, and if he did, what they wanted in return. Francis boasted that he was still holding compromising photos and videos of Navy officials.

“What worried the United States most was that these officers were being corrupted by me, that they would be corrupted by the foreign powers,” Francis said in an interview with podcaster Tom Wright, who last year made a nine-part series on the case. . .

Jason Forge, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego involved in high-profile extradition cases from Mexico, said Francis may be trying to convince Venezuela he has something to offer, but Forge doubts he really does. Francis, who was placed under house arrest according to court documents after undergoing surgery, has also been a precious prisoner due to his declining health.

“Even assuming he has embarrassing photos and videos of several naval officers, unless they’re of Hunter Biden at one of the parties, I just don’t see the US caring,” he said, referring to Biden’s son.

US officials point out that Venezuela does not appear to have stopped Francis on his way to the country and could easily deport him on its own without any legal proceedings.

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Goodman reported from Miami.

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