In this 2020 photo, Adm. Robert Burke is interviewed by American Forces Network Sigonella.

In this 2020 photo, Adm. Robert Burke is interviewed by American Forces Network Sigonella. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay

Former vice chief of naval operations arrested on bribery, conspiracy charges

Robert Burke, a retired four-star, is alleged to have steered work toward a services company while he was commanding Naval Forces Europe-Africa.

Updated: 4:05 p.m. ET.

A former U.S. Navy vice chief of naval operations has been arrested on charges that he accepted bribes to steer work to a company while he was commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa, Justice Department officials said in a Friday statement.

Robert Burke, 62, of Coconut Creek, Florida, along with two business executives, Yongchul “Charlie” Kim and Meghan Messenger of New York, were each charged with bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery, according to an indictment unsealed on Friday. 

“Burke is also charged with performing acts affecting a personal financial interest and concealing material facts from the United States. If convicted, Burke faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, and Kim and Messenger each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison,” the statement said.

A former submariner, Burke served as the 40th vice chief of naval operations from June 2019 until June 2020, then as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Forces Command.

DOJ officials said Kim and Messenger are co-CEOs of a defense contractor they identified as “Company A.” A website for the services company NextJump identifies a Charlie Kim and a Meghan Messenger as co-CEOs.

From 2018 to 2019, Company A “provided a workforce training pilot program to a small component of the Navy,” which ended the contract in late 2019 and told company officials not to contact Burke, the statement said.

“Despite the Navy’s instructions, Kim and Messenger then allegedly met with Burke in Washington, D.C., in July 2021 in an effort to reestablish Company A’s business relationship with the Navy,” the statement said. “At the meeting, the charged defendants allegedly agreed that Burke would use his position as a Navy Admiral to steer a sole-source contract to Company A in exchange for future employment at the company. They allegedly further agreed that Burke would use his official position to influence other Navy officers to award another contract to Company A to train a large portion of the Navy with a value Kim allegedly estimated to be ‘triple digit millions.’” 

Several months later, Burke—who was then serving as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Forces Command—allegedly ordered his Navy staff to award a $355,000 contract to the company to train personnel under Burke’s command in Italy and Spain, the statement said. 

“Company A performed the training in January 2022. Thereafter, Burke allegedly promoted Company A in a failed effort to convince a senior Navy Admiral to award another contract to Company A. To conceal the scheme, Burke allegedly made several false and misleading statements to the Navy, including by creating the false appearance that Burke played no role in issuing the contract and falsely implying that Company A’s employment discussions with Burke only began months after the contract was awarded,” the statement said.

“In October 2022, Burke began working at Company A at a yearly starting salary of $500,000 and a grant of 100,000 stock options.” 

The announcement came the same day as a court appearance by Leonard Glenn Francis, who was convicted in 2015 of bribing multiple Navy officers to obtain lucrative contracts for servicing warships in foreign ports.

“The idea that you'd have a four-star admiral charged with taking bribes is kind of mind-blowing,” said Craig Whitlock, author of Fat Leonard: How One Man Bribed, Bilked, and Seduced the U.S Navy. “But the fact that this has happened after the Fat Leonard investigation really makes you question if the senior leadership in the Navy took any lessons to heart from that scandal.”

“At one point, 91 admirals were under investigation or questioned in the Fat Leonard case. This was something the Navy's never acknowledged. And yet only one of them went to jail. So the vast majority of them, you know, there was no accountability for,” Whitlock said. “You do have to wonder if that lack of accountability—or the Navy's unwillingness to really do any lessons learned or assess the broader damage to its leadership—if that's one reason why this kind of thing just happened again.”

The Navy is working with the Justice Department in the matter, its chief spokesperson said.

“The Department of the Navy has fully cooperated with this investigation from the onset. We take this matter very seriously and will continue to cooperate with the Department of Justice. As this is an ongoing legal case we would refer you to the DOJ for any further information regarding this matter,” Rear Adm. Ryan Perry said in a statement.

Defense One has reached out to Burke and NextJump for comment.

Audrey Decker and Ross Wilkers contributed to this report.