As the flagship for the Seventh Fleet, the USS Blue Ridge plays a critical role in United States security by overseeing all American maritime operations in Asia and the western Pacific. The venerable warship is the US Navy’s second-oldest active-duty vessel and has survived the Vietnam war, the cold war and tensions with China and North Korea.

But there is one foreign threat against which the Blue Ridge proved utterly defenceless for many years: a six-foot-three, 158kg tugboat owner known as “Fat Leonard”.

In a case that ranks as the worst corruption scandal in US Navy history, the Justice Department has charged 15 officers and one enlisted sailor who served on the Blue Ridge with taking bribes from or lying about their ties to Leonard Glenn Francis, a Singapore-based tycoon who held lucrative contracts to service ships and submarines in Asian ports.

For the better part of a decade, as part of a massive scam to defraud the US Navy, Francis systematically infiltrated the Blue Ridge to a degree that is only now coming into focus, more than four years after the defence contractor’s arrest, according to the documents from federal court and the US Navy, as well as interviews with Navy officials and associates of Francis.

Prosecutors say nine sailors from the Seventh Fleet flagship leaked classified information about ship movements and other secrets to Francis, a Malaysian citizen, making the Blue Ridge perhaps the most widely compromised US military headquarters of the modern era. The Navy is investigating dozens of others who served on the ship, which is based in Japan, for possible violations of military law or ethics rules, according to documents and interviews.

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Between 2006 and 2013, Francis doled out illicit gifts, hosted epicurean feasts and sponsored sex parties for Blue Ridge personnel on at least 45 occasions, according to federal court records and Navy documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Officers from the Blue Ridge consumed or pocketed about US$1 million in gourmet meals, liquor, cash, vacations, airline tickets, tailored suits, Cuban cigars, luxury watches, cases of beef, designer handbags, antique furniture and concert tickets – and revelled in the attention of an armada of prostitutes, records show.

Although Francis offered bribes and freebies to hundreds of personnel assigned to other US warships, bases and embassies in Asia starting in the early 1990s, the Blue Ridge was his primary target.

Staff officers on the Blue Ridge had the clout to intervene on behalf of Francis’ company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, because they managed operations, logistics and intelligence for the entire Seventh Fleet. Of paramount importance to Francis was the officers’ access to the classified itineraries of all US ships and submarines transiting the region.

A master recruiter, Francis methodically assembled a network of informants to feed him the secret itineraries, court documents show. Wielding remarkable influence for a foreigner, he then prodded his moles on the Blue Ridge to reroute aircraft carriers and other vessels to ports controlled by his firm so he could more easily overcharge the Navy for fuel, other supplies and services.

Francis, 53, has pleaded guilty to bribery and defrauding the US military of US$35 million, although some officials think the monetary losses sustained by the Navy are far greater. He has been in jail in San Diego, California, since his arrest in 2013 and is cooperating with authorities as he awaits sentencing. One of his lawyers, Ethan Posner, declined to comment.

The case has snowballed into an epic embarrassment for the Navy, which has struggled to explain how so many officers on the Blue Ridge succumbed so easily to the prostitutes, extravagant meals and expensive gifts that Francis dangled as temptations. It also has raised questions about the extent to which admirals in the Seventh Fleet and the rest of the Navy knew of what was happening under their command but did not intervene.

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More than 60 admirals have come under investigation by the Justice Department and the Navy for their interactions with Francis and his company. Two admirals have been charged in federal court and six others have been censured or disciplined. Authorities have publicly identified only a handful of the others so far.

Commander Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman, says the service takes the ongoing criminal investigation “very seriously” and that it is working closely with the Justice Department to hold Navy personnel accountable.

“The criminal activity of Leonard Francis has changed how we conduct our … contracting services worldwide,” Kafka says in an email. “It is evident that Leonard Francis specifically targeted personnel from the USS Blue Ridge, the flag ship for the Seventh Fleet, due to that staff’s ability to impact other ship schedules and port visit locations.”

The Navy advertises the 634-foot-long Blue Ridge, named after a range in the Appalachian Mountains, as the most capable command ship ever built. It was commissioned in 1970. Among the Navy’s active-duty vessels, only the wooden-hulled USS Constitution, which was launched in 1797 and is preserved as a museum, is older.

The Blue Ridge boasts little firepower. But as the floating headquarters for the Seventh Fleet, it is packed with advanced communications gear so it can track and command the fleet’s formidable assets: about 60 warships and submarines, manned by a combined 20,000 sailors, performing missions in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

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The Seventh Fleet is led by a three-star admiral supported by a command staff of about 200 personnel assigned to the Blue Ridge. The ship itself is skippered by a captain with a separate crew. It spends about half the year docked at its home port in Yokosuka, Japan, and the rest making the rounds in Asia.

For years, when it arrived in a port, the Blue Ridge would be welcomed by a familiar sight on the pier: a beaming Francis, flanked by a black sport-utility vehicle or limousine and an entourage of comely young women.

Glenn Defense held Navy contracts to provide everything the crew might need while in port, including fuel, food, fresh water, tugboats, security guards and ground transportation. But Francis, also known within Navy circles as “Leonard the Legend”, was renowned for the perks he provided off the books.

Besides paying for meals at Asia’s fanciest restaurants, he was famed within the Navy for the prostitutes and strippers he had on call from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Organising the sex workers into what he dubbed “elite SEAL teams”, he would fly them from their countries to whatever port the Blue Ridge might be visiting.

Blue Ridge officers were repeatedly instructed that none of this was permissible. The Navy, like other federal agencies, has strict rules against accepting anything of monetary value from people seeking to do business with the government. Gifts are prohibited unless they are worth US$20 or less. There is also a US$50 annual limit on accepting gifts from a single source. Yet officers on the Blue Ridge routinely conspired with Francis to undermine the regulations, according to federal prosecutors.

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In February 2006, as the Blue Ridge prepared to visit Hong Kong, a military lawyer sent an ethics alert to senior officers on the ship: beware defence contractors who might try to bribe you.

Instead of complying, Captain David Newland, the Seventh Fleet chief of staff, immediately leaked the message to Francis so that the latter could cover his tracks, according to an indictment filed last year in federal court in San Diego. Prosecutors said Newland was one in a long line of Blue Ridge officers who had been on the take from the contractor.

While Colonel DeGuzman may have accepted a handful of dinners and hotel rooms paid for by the defense contractor Francis, [his] decisions and actions were never based even in part on these unsolicited gratuities, but rather were made based on the best interests of the safety and security of the Marines and sailors under his command.
Birney Bervar, the lawyer for Colonel Enrico DeGuzman

The next day, the Blue Ridge docked in Hong Kong for a 72-hour visit. Newland and other officers dined and drank at Francis’ expense at a swanky French restaurant, racking up a US$20,000 tab; then they spent the night at the Island Shangri-La hotel, where Francis covered much of the cost, the indictment states.

“There was a continuous drumbeat on ethics,” says Steve Barney, a retired Navy captain who wrote the 2006 ethics alert when he was serving as the Seventh Fleet’s top lawyer. “Anybody who was on the staff, if they took the time to read it, would have been on notice about what the ethics rules were.”

Three weeks after Barney posted his ethics warning, the flagship arrived in Singapore for another port visit – and another party.

On March 9, 2006, at least seven officers from the Blue Ridge attended a twilight cocktail hour held by Francis on the helipad atop the 73-storey Swissôtel The Stamford, one of the tallest hotels in Southeast Asia, according to court documents and photographs of the event obtained by The Washington Post.

Afterwards, the group dined in a private room at Jaan, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where they savoured foie gras terrine, oxtail soup and duck-leg confit followed by a degustation of baby lamb, according to a copy of the menu from that evening. For dessert: dark Manjari chocolate gelee, with cacao nib foam, poached rhubarb and passion fruit sorbet. The officers drank Hennessy Paradis Extra cognac at US$2,000 a bottle and smoked Cuban Cohiba cigars worth US$2,000 a box, records show. If there was any doubt about who was paying for it, the menu proclaimed in large type that the hosts for the evening were Mr and Mrs Leonard G. Francis.

Photographs show Francis being toasted by Newland. Also in attendance were Colonel Enrico DeGuzman, the Marine Corps liaison to the Seventh Fleet, and Lieutenant Commander Edmond Aruffo, another Seventh Fleet staff officer.

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Newland and DeGuzman were indicted in March last year on bribery and conspiracy charges, along with seven other former officers from the Blue Ridge and the Seventh Fleet staff. All have pleaded not guilty.

Joseph Mancano, a lawyer for Newland, calls the allegations against him “simply unproven” and says that his client “looks forward to being vindicated at trial”.

A lawyer for DeGuzman acknowledges that the Marine Corps officer had accepted favours from Francis but denies that he gave anything in return or knew that Glenn Defense was overbilling the Navy.

“While Colonel DeGuzman may have accepted a handful of dinners and hotel rooms paid for by the defence contractor Francis, [his] decisions and actions were never based even in part on these unsolicited gratuities, but rather were made based on the best interests of the safety and security of the marines and sailors under his command,” says Birney Bervar, the lawyer.

Aruffo, who was hired by Francis to work at Glenn Defense after retiring from the Navy, pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to defraud the US. His sentence is pending. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Others present for the March 2006 Singapore dinner included the Blue Ridge’s commanding officer, Captain Jeff Bartkoski, and the Seventh Fleet chaplain, Captain William Devine, who posed for a photo with a thick cigar in his mouth.

Bartkoski, who retired from the Navy in 2014, declined to comment. In an interview, Devine, a Catholic priest who has since retired from the military, says he “vaguely” remembered the dinner. “I didn’t sense there was any inappropriateness,” he adds.

Devine says he recalled discussing the ethics alert with the Seventh Fleet’s top lawyer at the time it was issued. But he was at a loss to explain why he decided to go to Francis’ soiree anyway.

“I guess in my naiveté I never saw that as going against any rules,” says Devine, who now serves as the pastor of a parish in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. “I guess I didn’t make that connection at the time. Shame on me.”

Over time, Francis’ corruption of the Blue Ridge’s wardroom became progressively decadent, court records show.

During a port visit in February 2007, he threw a sex party involving prostitutes, Newland and other officers at the five-star Manila Hotel, where General Douglas MacArthur lived when he served as military adviser to the government of the Philippines in the late 1930s, according to the indictment. During the party, “historical memorabilia” related to MacArthur were used in sexual acts, the indictment states.

A year later, during a return visit to Manila, Francis spent more than US$50,000 to stage “a raging multi-day party” for Blue Ridge officers in the Presidential Suite of the Makati Shangri-La hotel, the court records show.

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Prosecutors say Francis hired a “rotating carousel of prostitutes” for the party. The group guzzled the hotel’s entire supply of Dom Pérignon and swapped sex partners in the suite, according to the indictment and a person familiar with the bacchanalia.

“I finally detoxed myself from Manila,” Commander Stephen Shedd, a Seventh Fleet planning officer, emailed Francis a week later. “That was a crazy couple of days. It’s been a while since I’ve done 36 hours of straight drinking!!!”

Over the next six years, some Blue Ridge officers who swallowed Francis’ bait grew hungry for more than their steady diet of multicourse meals and romps with prostitutes.

Captain Donald Hornbeck, the Seventh Fleet’s deputy chief of staff for operations, persuaded Francis to arrange a culinary internship for one of his relatives at the posh Chalet Suisse restaurant, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and cover US$13,000 of her living expenses, according to the indictment. His lawyer, Benjamin Cheeks, declined to comment.

Commander Jose Luis Sanchez, a deputy logistics officer for the Seventh Fleet, pleaded guilty to accepting between US$30,000 and US$120,000 worth of cash, paid sex, travel and other favours. Prosecutors say he pocketed at least US$100,000 in cash.

Vincent Ward, a lawyer for Sanchez, says the Navy officer could not comment because he has not been sentenced. He says Sanchez “has taken full responsibility for his mistakes” and “looks forward to the day when the truth about his role … is accurately portrayed to the public”.

Even the wife of one of the Blue Ridge’s former skippers had her hand out, court records show.

Carol Lausman, the spouse of Captain David “Too Tall” Lausman, accepted an US$8,400 Versace purse while on a 2011 visit to Hong Kong, according to an indictment against her husband. “Leonard gave me a lovely gift,” she emailed a Glenn Defense staff member before complaining that the gold insignia on the purse had cracked.

Glenn Defense sent her a new Versace purse as a replacement.

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Carol Lausman has not been charged with a crime and did not respond to requests for comment. But court records show that Francis considered her someone he could exploit to corrupt the Blue Ridge’s commanding officer. During an earlier visit by the flagship to Thailand, Francis told his staff in an email to pay for Carol Lausman to stay at a beach resort with her husband and for other perks.

“Fast track and VIP service. Best room at Sheraton,” Francis instructed. “Arrange Market trip and tour for shopping in Bangkok. She wants to make silk pants. Cheap price. We pay ha ha.”

David Lausman has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Other spouses allegedly received their share, too. In 2007, Francis gave a pair of Ulysse Nardin watches, worth US$25,000, to Shedd and his wife, according to the indictment.

A few months later, Shedd emailed Francis to ask whether he would mind paying for the couple and two children to vacation in Singapore and Malaysia. “Spank me hard if I’m out of line,” Shedd added.

Francis covered their expenses, which totaled US$30,000 for the week-long holiday, according to the indictment.

I’ve got about 10 days before I’m in big trouble and I really, really appreciate your assistance. I’ll get you whatever information you need
Commander Stephen Shedd, a Seventh Fleet planning officer, in an email to Leonard Glenn Francis

A few months later, Shedd allegedly came back for a bigger favour. He was broke. He emailed Francis a spreadsheet listing his personal debts and asked for emergency help in paying them off.

“I’ve got about 10 days before I’m in big trouble and I really, really appreciate your assistance,” Shedd wrote. “I’ll get you whatever information you need.”

Tired of Shedd’s requests for handouts, Francis responded with a demand of his own. He wanted classified details of upcoming ship visits to the South Pacific. “The info is required by tomorrow,” he ordered in a brusque email.

The Navy officer obeyed right away, according to the indictment. Francis had his secret ship schedules within eight hours.

Five days later, however, Shedd still had not received the money he needed. Unsure whether he had been duped, he sent Francis a beggarly email: “I was wondering if you have reached a decision on my Shedd Bailout/Rescue Loan proposal.”

Whether Francis came through in the end, the indictment does not say. Shedd’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Justice Department investigation has raised questions about whether the admirals in charge of the Seventh Fleet were aware of Francis’ illicit business practices or should have suspected he was infiltrating their headquarters. Federal prosecutors have suggested as much.

“Francis was able to leverage his way to the top in plain view of generations of senior Naval Officers and Admirals,” they wrote in a sentencing memo for Captain Daniel Dusek, a former Seventh Fleet operations officer on the Blue Ridge who is serving a 46-month prison sentence.

Although it is common for senior Navy leaders to interact with contractors, Francis went to unusual lengths to rub elbows with admirals. Former associates say he knew that if he could create the impression that he was cosy with the Seventh Fleet commander, subordinates would think twice about challenging Glenn Defense’s inflated invoices.

Whenever he met with the brass, even for brief encounters, he made sure an employee tagged along with a camera. He solicited official letters from senior Seventh Fleet officers praising Glenn Defense, then published them as endorsements in the company’s promotional brochures.

Six vice admirals held the job of Seventh Fleet commander between 2002 and Francis’ arrest in 2013. None has been charged by the Justice Department. The Navy will not say whether it has investigated any of them for possible violations of military law or ethics rules.

Five of the former Seventh Fleet commanders – Robert Willard, Jonathan Greenert, John Bird, Scott Van Buskirk and Scott Swift – declined to comment about their relationships with Francis or did not respond to interview requests. All except Swift have retired from the Navy.

The only one who agreed to an interview was W. Douglas Crowder, a retired vice admiral who led the Seventh Fleet from 2006 to 2008. He says he had been “uneasy” with Francis ever since he met him at a dinner in Hong Kong in 2004 but declined to elaborate.

Crowder says that on the day he took over as the Seventh Fleet commander, after the swearing-in ceremony, he walked into his official residence for the first time at the US Navy base in Yokosuka. He glanced into the backyard and, much to his surprise, saw Francis standing there with a young officer.

Crowder says he summoned the officer inside.

“What is Fat Leonard doing in my backyard?” he demanded. “You brought Fat Leonard into my residence? My 15-year-old daughter lives here. My wife lives here. You get Fat Leonard out of my backyard.”

The admiral says he fired the officer – Lieutenant Commander Edmond Aruffo, who years later would plead guilty to corruption charges – from his position and ordered his staff to keep Francis at arm’s-length.

But the contractor was hard to dodge, Crowder says. Francis would wangle VIP invitations to Seventh Fleet ceremonies and wait patiently for a chance to approach the admiral and shake his hand.

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Crowder says he tried to avoid having his photo taken with Francis at such events, with limited success.

“When he comes through a receiving line in Manila, three people behind the president of the Philippines, what are you going to do? Cause a scene?”

He says he was “flabbergasted” by how many former Seventh Fleet officers, including several who worked for him, have been charged with taking bribes.

Crowder says he has not been questioned by investigators.

“If I’d have done anything wrong, I’d be before someone by now,” he adds. “I’m satisfied with my ethical conduct.”

Asked whether he or other senior Navy leaders should have detected what was going on, he pauses.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” he says. “Most of us, we spend our lives, you see something wrong, you take action. The other side of the coin is that you trust people.”