First military case in Navy bribery scandal begins
Norfolk, Va. — While he was stationed in Singapore, a U.S. Navy commander ate suckling pigs worth $400 apiece, attended a Gucci fashion show with his wife and enjoyed the services of prostitutes — all courtesy of a Malaysian defense contractor, Navy prosecutors alleged Monday.
Cmdr. David Alexander Morales is the latest Navy official to be charged in a wide-ranging bribery scandal in which officers allegedly provided ship schedules and important access to Singapore-based businessman Leonard Francis.
Nicknamed “Fat Leonard” for his large size, Francis was determined to maintain his firm’s market share in servicing American warships in Asian ports, a lucrative operation that spanned 25 years and allowed him to overbill the Navy by nearly $35 million.
The Department of Justice has already filed charges against 25 people, including Francis as well as 20 former and current officers in the Navy. Several, including a retired admiral, have pleaded guilty.
But Morales, 49, is the first to be charged in the Navy’s military court system. His journey effectively began Monday at a preliminary hearing in Norfolk, Virginia, as prosecutors flipped through pages of text messages between him and Francis while itemizing the various gifts Morales allegedly received.
His attorney said after the hearing that the Navy has a weak case, which federal officials had declined to prosecute.
“The leftovers are for the Navy,” said Frank Spinner, a Colorado-based military defense lawyer. “The sharks have been prosecuted. Now they’re going after the minnows.”
Much of the hearing centered on the testimony of Janice Horst, a special agent who conducts criminal investigations for the Department of Defense’s Inspector General. She described a friendship between the two men in which Francis paid for expensive dinners, liquor and prostitutes when Morales’ wife wasn’t around. When she was, Horst said Francis bought the couple tickets to fashion shows or a Julio Iglesias concert.
Horst said Francis seemed to be grooming Morales to provide him with important information, and that Francis had asked the commander for ship schedules. Morales told Francis that he wouldn’t provide any classified information.
Angela Tang, a Navy prosecutor, said Morales also gave Francis the email of an admiral, introduced him to other contacts and recommended others for Francis to approach.
She said Morales was “right on the cusp of providing unclassified ship schedules” and “seemed very eager to please Mr. Francis.”
Morales allegedly passed along an envelope to Francis. But Spinner, Morales’ defense attorney, pointed out during cross-examination that it was never recovered and its contents remain unknown.
Spinner also said the Navy lacks hard evidence that Morales engaged with prostitutes beyond claims made by Francis, who has since become a witness for prosecutors.
Spinner said Morales may have had a close relationship with Francis “but that doesn’t mean it crossed the line.”
A Navy captain who oversaw the preliminary hearing will decide in the coming weeks whether to recommend Morales for a court-martial. An admiral will then decide if one should proceed.