Numerous officers who served in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet are caught up in a massive bribery scandal.

Numerous officers who served in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet are caught up in a massive bribery scandal. Information Systems Technician 3rd Class Nicholas A. Galladora/U.S. Navy

A Navy Scandal Sheds Light on the Nature of Bribery and the Limits of Free Speech

A massive scandal implicating senior US Navy officers highlights what bribery is and how it happens. A law and ethics scholar at the U.S. Naval Academy can't say much more than that, though.

It seems like everyone’s talking about bribery these days – but I, and anyone else who works for the federal government, have to limit what we can say about what does or does not constitute an ethical or illegal lapse.

I am an ethicist who teaches leadership, ethics and law, and I believe a recent bribery case in the U.S. military offers an interesting and distinctive perspective through which to consider these issues. Unfortunately, due to current restrictions on what federal employees can and can’t say about political matters, I can’t discuss all the ways that case might apply to a broader debate.

Nonetheless, there is one thing I can say without caveat or equivocation. Bribery laws for government officials have a powerful ethical principle at their core: If you work for the government, your actions in office are meant to serve the public interest – not your own.

Leonard Glenn Francis, known as ‘Fat Leonard,’ is the central figure in a major U.S. Navy bribery investigation. U.S. Navy via Straits Times

Trouble in the 7th Fleet

The so-called “Fat Leonard scandal” is the largest bribery and corruption case in U.S. Navy history.

The key player is Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian-born businessman based in Singapore who was commonly referred to as “Fat Leonard” because of his 350-pound weight. He ran a company called Glenn Defense Marine Asia that had U.S. government contracts to provide various services to Navy ships in Asian ports – docking, refueling, sewage removal and shore transportation for both cargo and personnel.

In 2015, Francis pleaded guilty to plying Navy officers with cash and favors in exchange for their efforts to steer the Navy’s Pacific fleet to ports where his company could provide services. Then, the company would fabricate bids by nonexistent companies to make its own charges look competitive, overbill the Navy for services and even draw up fake invoices to collect money for goods and services it never provided to the ships and crews.

The case is perhaps best known for the fact that one of the most common favors Francis provided were paid sexual partners: He even kept meticulous notes about the peccadilloes of different officers.

More significant for U.S. taxpayers is the fact that the decade-long scam ultimately bilked the Navy out of more than US$35 million.

Whistleblowers and corruption

Capt. John Steinberger is one of many high-ranking Navy officers who has pleaded guilty to crimes associated with receiving gifts and bribes from a Singapore-based businessman. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christine Walker-Singh/U.S. Navy
Rear Adm. Terry Kraft retired after being found to have violated Navy ethics standards by improperly accepting gifts from ‘Fat Leonard’ Glenn Francis. U.S. Navy via Washington Post
Rear Adm. David Pimpo retired after being found to have violated Navy ethics standards by improperly accepting gifts from ‘Fat Leonard’ Glenn Francis. U.S. Navy
Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller retired after being found to have violated Navy ethics standards by improperly accepting gifts from ‘Fat Leonard’ Glenn Francis. U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

In some ways the Fat Leonard scandal is a textbook bribery scheme, with clandestine meetings, envelopes full of cash, and explicit arrangements to perform clearly illegal acts. In fact, one of the biggest questions raised when Leonard was finally arrested in 2013 was how his company had been able to get away with the scheme for almost a decade.

There were, in fact, several whistleblowers along the way, but as is often the case when corruption is widespread, those in on the scheme were notified of the complaints before word got to those who would hold them responsible. So rather than being lauded, whistleblowers were instead widely vilified.

Nonetheless, the truth was eventually brought to light. To date, more than 20 people have pleaded guilty to federal crimes, including the first-ever conviction of an admiral for a felony.

Significantly, however, the scope of the scandal is even more far-reaching. Dozens of officers, including several admirals, have been reprimanded and removed from office for more minor related violations, without going to jail.

Reciprocity and bribery

These last cases are particularly interesting, because they help demonstrate not only the high standards of military, but also the ways that bribery schemes often don’t conform to common, stereotypical, preconceived notions.

Many of the officers charged didn’t accept cash payments, but rather the kind of favors that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to obtain for themselves: travel, champagne, scotch, luxury hotel rooms, ornamental swords, handmade ship models, spa treatments, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef, Spanish suckling pigs, concert tickets and even a culinary internship.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be surprising that bribery often begins with small favors rather than thick envelopes of cash. Human beings are social creatures; favors strengthen people’s social bonds and make them more likely to reciprocate in turn.

That’s why federal ethics rules regarding favors are generally so strict, prohibiting government employees from accepting all but the most minimal gifts (even modest meals) from contractors and foreign agents.

Those prohibitions have obvious exceptions, but the principle behind the general rules is all the more important in their exceptions: Official actions are meant to serve public, rather than private, interests. In the Fat Leonard cases, the evidence is clear: Even in the cases in which leaders have been merely reprimanded and removed from office, the kinds of favors the officers accepted demonstrate they were acting for their own benefits – not those of the nation.

Why I can’t say more

There may well be lessons the Fat Leonard saga has for other cases in which the alleged exchange of official acts for something of personal value is a key element of the crime. Those considerations might seem even more relevant given that in 1998, Mississippi Republican lawmaker Roger Wicker took to the House floor and declared “the rule of law means that the commander-in-chief of our armed forces could not be held to a lower standard than are his subordinates.” More than two decades later Wicker, now a senator, has recently reaffirmed that standard.

However, I am a federal employee, and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel has issued unusually broad guidance about the Hatch Act’s limits on federal workers’ partisan political activities. The law generally bars federal employees from advocating in favor of or against the election of a particular candidate, as well from participating in other partisan political activities in an election. Yet the current guidance – which itself has been criticized for taking sides on a political divide – has been taken by some to apply to any analysis of any aspects of the president’s impeachment and trial.

Limiting public discourse

This is a free-speech problem, but it’s more than that. When federal and state governments hire experts and researchers as, in effect, public servants, I believe that expertise should be welcome in the public sphere, helping to inform the people we work for.

I work at a federally run university, which is why I come under these particular government rules. There are relatively few institutions like mine, so it might seem a minor issue. However, numerous states have laws similar to the Hatch Act, at least some of which apply to employees of those states’ public universities. If the current federal rules stand, public state university employees may well find themselves facing similar, or even more problematic, limits in the future, especially if analysis is taken to be a form of advocacy.

Regardless of those concerns, the Office of Special Counsel’s current guidance remains, for better or worse, the rule for federal employees. Given that fact, there very may well be another reason to follow it: Doing so can help further differentiate those who attempt to respect the significant distinction between campaigning and governing from those who seek to minimize, or even eliminate altogether, the difference between the two.

As a result, I leave any lessons of how the Fat Leonard scandal might apply to any other case as an exercise for the reader.

The Conversation

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.