Leonard Glenn Francis, the defense contractor behind the worst bribery and corruption scandal in U.S. Navy history, was supposed to have a new attorney when he showed up to court Thursday, which would have allowed a judge to schedule his long awaited sentencing.
Instead, the man known as " Fat Leonard," who was returned to San Diego earlier this year after fleeing house arrest in 2022 and then spending some 15 months in a Venezuelan prison, asked for 60 more days to find a lawyer.
The request seemed to frustrate both federal prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino, who had already given Francis more than a month to find a new lawyer.
"We have to move this forward," Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard told the judge.
"The time has come to ... resolve this matter," she said. She gave Francis another 45 days to find an attorney, telling him that at his next hearing in March, she wants to set a sentencing date.
Francis' unsettled attorney situation seems to be a direct result of his flight from justice nearly 18 months ago. A few weeks after he fled the country, one of his defense attorneys asked for his firm to be withdrawn "based on an irreparable breakdown in the attorney-client relationship."
That firm, Warren & Burstein, is still representing Francis for the time being but recently renewed its withdrawal request.
The Malaysian-born Francis was once a powerful military contractor in southeast Asia. He was arrested in 2013 in San Diego and pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal corruption charges related to his wide-ranging bribery scheme that bilked the U.S. government of at least $35 million. Francis spent years as a cooperating witness for the U.S. government in the continuing investigation and prosecution of the Navy officers he had bribed.
In 2018, he was granted pre-sentence release due to his poor health, eventually moving into a luxurious Carmel Valley-area rental home. On Sept. 4, 2022, he cut off his GPS ankle monitor and fled, traveling from Mexico to Cuba to Venezuela while trying to make it to Russia. But he was captured by Interpol in Venezuela, where he then spent about 15 months in custody until he was included in a prisoner swap in December.
Last month, when Francis made his first appearance back in a San Diego court in several years, defense attorney Jeremy Warren, who had helped represent Francis for years, indicated his firm still intended to withdraw. "We're not in a position to advocate" for Francis, Warren told the judge at the time. He said he would provide details in a sealed hearing if she needed further explanation of the firm's reasoning.
Francis told the judge Thursday that he "wasn't in the right state of mind" during his January hearing because he "had just arrived from Florida."
He said that in the time since then, while in custody at the federal jail in downtown, he's had difficulty contacting his family and his attorney in Singapore. That, he said, was why he was requesting 60 additional days.
"My case is over a decade old," Francis said, adding that it's a "humongous" case and thus not easy to find a new attorney.
Sammartino asked Warren to help facilitate communication between Francis and his attorney in Singapore to ensure he can quickly obtain new local counsel.
Sheppard, the prosecutor, objected last month to the judge's decision to let Warren and his firm withdraw from the case. He argued at the time that finding Francis a new defense team would cause a lengthy delay.
He made a similar objection Thursday.
Prosecutors have still not said whether they will charge Francis with new crimes related to him absconding. Sheppard said last month that the U.S. Attorney's Office is "considering additional charges" — potentially contempt of court — but would wait to file such charges until after he's sentenced in the bribery and fraud scheme.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.