Venezuela Hands over ‘Fat Leonard,’ Mastermind in U.S. Navy Scandal

U.S. Marshals Service via AP, File
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis. The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the return of a fugitive defense contractor Leonard Francis known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

Leonard Glenn Francis, the fugitive defense contractor who admitted to a $35 million bribery scheme in the largest corruption scandal in U.S. military history, has been arrested and returned by Venezuela to the United States as part of a major prisoner swap between the estranged countries, President Biden said Wednesday.

Venezuela is also releasing 10 Americans detained by the government of Nicolás Maduro, Biden said.

Biden, in exchange, has agreed to grant clemency to Alex Saab, a close Maduro ally who was awaiting trial in Miami on federal money laundering charges, senior administration officials said. The businessman, whom federal prosecutors consider a corrupt enabler of Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist government, is accused of siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts.

Saab, 51, was arrested last year during a stopover in Cape Verde en route to Iran. His detention has been a key sticking point in negotiations between Washington and Caracas.

Francis, known as “Fat Leonard,” was apprehended by Venezuelan authorities in Caracas last year after escaping U.S. sentencing. He was expected to board a plane “very soon” to the United States, where he is to be transferred to a federal detention facility, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing developments.

The prisoner swap, the largest yet between the Biden administration and the Maduro government, comes amid months of negotiations on a range of concerns. The United States agreed in October to ease sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and gas industry for six months in exchange for promises from Maduro to hold freer presidential elections in 2024.

In addition to the 10 Americans, Maduro is releasing 20 Venezuelan political prisoners as part of an agreement reached in October between the Venezuelan government and opposition leaders.

The senior administration official said Biden made the “extremely difficult decision” to grant clemency to Saab to bring Americans home and to “ensure that one of the most notorious fugitives from justice, Fat Leonard, is returned and held to account for his crimes.”

The 10 Americans included “all six wrongfully detained Americans” in Venezuela, Biden said. He told reporters Wednesday that all 10 were on an aircraft on their way home.

Biden said the United States would hold Maduro’s government accountable for holding fair elections next year.

“Not over yet,” Biden said. “They’ve made detailed commitments. We’ll see if they hold them.”

Maduro’s government called Saab’s return to Venezuela “a symbol of victory” for the country’s “peace diplomacy.”

After stepping off a private plane, Saab joined Maduro at the Miraflores presidential palace. In a news conference, Saab thanked his wife and the government for their support. “I am proud to serve the people and the loyal government that does not abandon, that, like me, never gives up,” Saab said.

Marco Rodriguez-Acosta, a Venezuelan attorney who represented Francis, said his return to the United States was “in clear violation” of the Venezuelan constitution and criminal laws. He said Venezuelan officials did not notify him in advance of the transfer or grant Francis a hearing to contest it in court. “It’s complete and utter madness,” Rodriguez-Acosta wrote in a text message Wednesday. “Something I have never seen or been aware of before.”

A hearing is expected to be held this week in federal court in San Diego to address Francis’s status. He was originally scheduled to be sentenced on fraud and bribery charges in September 2022. Devin Burstein, a lawyer representing Francis on his federal charges, declined to comment Wednesday.

Francis, now 59, pleaded guilty in federal court to bribing “scores” of Navy officials with millions of dollars in cash and gifts including luxury travel goods, Cuban cigars, Spanish suckling pigs and prostitutes for classified or inside information that he used to defraud the Navy. The investigation exposed a staggering amount of corruption within the Navy 7th Fleet.

Francis, a Malaysian national, embarrassed the U.S. government last year by fleeing the country shortly before he was scheduled to be sentenced. He escaped home federal detention in San Diego on Sept. 4, 2022, by slicing off a GPS transmitter strapped around his ankle, hailing a ride to the Mexican border and then hopping a flight to Cuba.

Cuban authorities refused to let him stay, so he flew onward to Venezuela, where he applied for asylum at the Russian embassy in Caracas. He was awaiting a decision from Russian authorities when he was arrested Sept. 20 at the Caracas airport on an Interpol Red Notice.

Francis then became stuck in diplomatic limbo for more than a year. While the United States and Venezuela have a long-standing extradition treaty, they do not have diplomatic relations. The U.S. Justice Department could not request extradition through normal channels.

Francis had not committed any crimes in Venezuela, but Maduro’s government kept him in detention in the hope of using him as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the Biden administration. In June, Francis was visited in prison in Caracas by Roger Carstens, the State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs, and five United Nations officials, according to Rodríguez-Acosta, the attorney representing Francis.

Francis told Carstens and the U.N. officials that he opposed efforts to return him to the United States and asked that he not be considered as part of a broader prisoner exchange. He applied for asylum in Venezuela on humanitarian grounds, but officials did not rule on his request.

The Malaysian businessman was arrested in a federal sting operation in San Diego in September 2013 after the Naval Criminal Investigative Service lured him to the United States. He pleaded guilty in January 2015 to fraud and bribery. As part of his plea deal, he provided extensive cooperation to the Justice Department by providing incriminating evidence against hundreds of Navy personnel.

Francis was released from jail in 2018 on medical furlough and received treatment for advanced kidney cancer. He remained on home detention in San Diego until his escape last year.

The prisoner exchange comes after Maduro failed to meet a Nov. 30 deadline for Venezuela to release political prisoners. U.S. officials said in recent days that the Biden administration would reverse course if Maduro failed to follow through with the agreement.

Between Oct. 18, when the deal was announced, and the Nov. 30 deadline, at least three more people were detained.

Venezuela’s attorney general recently issued arrest warrants for three campaign team members for María Corina Machado, chosen by the opposition to run against Maduro in 2024. Roberto Abdul, a member of the commission that conducted the opposition primary, was arrested a short time later on treason charges.

As part of the swap Wednesday, the Maduro government agreed to suspend the arrest warrants against the three campaign members and to release Abdul.

The “wrongfully detained” Americans released Wednesday included Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright, a senior administration official said.

Kenemore, 53, was arrested in March 2022 after crossing the border to Venezuela to sign the papers for a house he bought along with his Venezuelan girlfriend.

“When he was arrested, he spent 40 days in solitary confinement,” his sister, Jeana Kenemore said in an interview Wednesday. “Its almost like I was with my brother in that cage, mentally.”

His release, she said, means the “end of our family’s nightmare.”

The Biden administration’s talks with the Maduro government reflect a significant shift in U.S. policy on Venezuela after a years-long effort under former president Donald Trump to isolate Caracas and apply maximum pressure failed to oust the strongman.

Maduro, the handpicked successor of socialist state founder Hugo Chávez, claimed reelection in 2018 in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. The following year, the United States recognized then-National Assembly president Juan Guaidó, at the time Venezuela’s highest-ranking democratically elected official, as its rightful leader. The countries soon broke off diplomatic relations.

In October 2022, the Venezuelan government freed seven Americans, including the five remaining members of the Citgo Six group of oil executives held since 2017, in exchange for two nephews of Maduro’s wife who had been detained in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

When the United States announced sanctions relief in October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration had “conveyed our expectation and understanding” that Maduro would “define a specific timeline and process for the expedited reinstatement of all” candidates in upcoming elections, including “all who want to run for president” next year, and a “level electoral playing field.”

Machado remains barred from running for office but appealed her ban with the Supreme Justice Tribunal last week. A senior administration official said Wednesday that the U.S. expects a decision in her case to be made “promptly.”