Venezuela Hands Over 'Fat Leonard' in Prisoner Swap

Former defense contractor is central figure in massive Pentagon bribery scandal
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 20, 2023 11:05 AM CST
Updated Dec 20, 2023 2:06 PM CST
US Is Back in the Prisoner-Swapping Business
Pedestrians walk by a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sept. 9, 2021.   (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

This file is updated throughout with new details. The US freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor known as "Fat Leonard," who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal. The deal represents the US government's boldest bid to improve relations with the oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader, per the AP. The largest release of US prisoners in Venezuela's history comes weeks after the Biden administration agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro and an opposition faction to work toward a free and fair 2024 presidential election.

The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate who was arrested on a US warrant for money laundering in 2020 and long was regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. The agreement also will result in the extradition of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company in Southeast Asia who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history. Nicknamed "Fat Leonard," Francis fled home custody in San Diego in September 2022 and was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas.

That escapade punctuated the bribery investigation that led to the conviction and sentencing of nearly two dozen Navy officials, defense contractors, and others on various fraud and corruption charges. The defense contractor was a key contact for US Navy ships at ports across Asia for more than two decades. During that time he wooed naval officers with Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and wild sex parties at luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines, according to a separate AP story on him.

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In exchange, the officers, including the first active-duty admiral to be convicted of a federal crime, concealed the scheme in which Francis would overcharge for supplying ships or charge for fake services at ports he controlled in Southeast Asia. The officers passed him classified information and even went so far as redirecting military vessels to ports that were lucrative for his Singapore-based ship servicing company. Upon arrival in the US, Francis will be transferred to a federal detention facility, per the Washington Post. (Read more about "Fat Leonard.")

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