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Even for January — usually the coldest month in Hong Kong — the air that Tuesday night was particularly cool.
But inside the private Alsace Room at Hong Kong’s Restaurant Petrus, the atmosphere was warm as a group of naval officers savoured the finest the upmarket restaurant had to offer.
The decor — gilt-edged, chandeliered Louis XIV opulence — framed spectacular views of Victoria Harbour.
At the table were four captains of the US Navy, and two lieutenant commanders — one American, the other Australian.
For dinner, the men had black truffle soup, lobster salad, caviar, pan-seared duck liver, sole and wagyu beef, followed by baked Alaska. Wine was paired with each dish.
Nine years later, every guest at that lavish dinner, aside from the Australian, would be charged with accepting bribes from Fat Leonard.
Leonard — real name Leonard Francis — was a Singapore-based naval contractor, keen to court favour with the sailors, since his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), provided millions of dollars of services to the US Navy’s ships each year.
In return for those favours, the US officers would leak him classified information. Some even altered Navy fleet movements, so Francis’s company would be in pole position for the US Navy’s business.
Once in port, Francis’s company gouged the US Navy to at least the tune of $US35 million.
The Fat Leonard case involved corruption at every stage of the contracting process for the US Navy’s port visits in South-East Asia.
The breadth of the scandal has rocked the United States military establishment.
More than 400 US Navy personnel, including 60 admirals, have been investigated about their involvement in Francis’s network.
So far, 21 naval and marine officers, some as senior as rear admirals, have been charged with criminal offences. Nine are serving jail terms. Two-hundred have been referred to the Pentagon for possible military charges. Eleven have been disciplined or face courts martial, including six rear and vice admirals.
The Hong Kong dinner in January 2008 was just one of many hundreds of similar meals, sex parties and lavish displays of hospitality Fat Leonard shouted his network of leakers over many years in what has become the biggest US Navy fraud case in history.
What Alex Gillett is alleged to have done is contained in a US Department of Justice indictment.
The indictment sets out the case against nine US officers, including conduct attributed to an Australian conspirator referred to as ‘AG’.
The ABC has confirmed “AG” is Alex Gillett.
The ABC also confirmed the Australian Federal Police has been assisting the US investigation, interviewing both RAN officers and Australians associated with Fat Leonard.
As part of that investigation, US investigators have travelled to Australia and interviewed civilians, Australian Navy and US Navy personnel stationed here.
Australian sailor stumbles into an American wolfpack
From late 2007 until early 2010, according to the indictment, Alex Gillett was stationed on the most important US Navy ship in the Asia-Pacific: USS Blue Ridge.
The Blue Ridge is the command headquarters for the United States’ 7th Fleet, which operates across the western Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The 7th Fleet covers a huge portion of the world’s oceans. It is the largest forward deployed fleet in the US Navy.
Mr Gillett was appointed the Australian Navy’s official liaison to the 7th Fleet.
When he boarded the Blue Ridge, he stepped into the top tier of the US operation, living alongside some of the US Navy’s most senior officers, planning joint US/Australian operations.
Those in the web — other officers on the Blue Ridge — called themselves names like ‘the familia’ and ‘the Wolfpack’. According to the indictment, within two months of arriving, Alex Gillett was one of the pack.
ABC has confirmed that, aside from Mr Gillett, one other former Australian officer is under investigation over his relationship with Francis.
ABC could not reach him, but understands he has left the Navy.
The ADF declined to confirm that the former officer is under investigation — or whether he has yet been interviewed by police.
Fat Leonard’s vast corruption network
Leonard Glenn Francis lived up to his nickname — weighing in about 160 kilograms.
A Malaysian-born Singaporean, his GDMA ship husbanding company operated across South-East Asia and was extremely lucrative.
GDMA billed the US Navy millions of dollars per year. A single seven-day stay could net GDMA $US2 million.
The company also controlled facilities at a number of ports, including Phuket and Laem Chabang in Thailand, along with Kota Kinabalu and Port Klang in Malaysia. When US ships berthed in these ports, GDMA got a fee for that too.
To ensure the US Navy chose GDMA to husband its fleet, and to ensure it chose GDMA ports to berth in, Leonard Francis bribed US naval personnel.
Emails filed in the US prosecutions show Francis paid bribes in cash and kind.
Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock followed the case closely from the start and led the US reporting on the scandal.
“Leonard Francis was literally almost every day trying to work out favours or gifts or bribes for US Navy officers — and some from Australia and other countries,” Whitlock said.
“He would pay for US Navy officers sometimes to have these orgies in the fanciest hotels in some parts of South-East Asia.
In return, the officers sent him classified Navy ship schedules and, when Francis asked, even used their influence to ensure the vessels docked at ports where GDMA controlled the facilities.
Once in port, GDMA milked the Navy, overcharging, even faking invoices, for the job.
“Leonard Francis, this Malaysian citizen was, in essence, dictating where the United State Navy [sent its] ships, just to suit him, so he could over-bill and gouge the US Navy,” Whitlock said.
While Leonard Francis has since pleaded guilty and admitted defrauding the United States tens of millions of dollars, it is believed the scale of his fraud is far higher. The bribes he gave to the naval officers are paltry in comparison.
It went on for years, possibly decades, until 2013, when Francis was lured by US authorities to San Diego and arrested.
Since Francis’s arrest, there have been waves of indictments, each naming more and more US Navy officers, who allegedly took GDMA’s bribes and gave Francis the classified information he wanted, including the indictment that sets out the alleged conduct of Alex Gillett.
How an Australian got caught up in the conspiracy
The indictment first places Mr Gillett with Francis and the co-conspirators at that Alsace Room banquet in late January 2008 in Hong Kong.
Among the 7th Fleet officers dining with Mr Gillett was the man who allegedly ushered him into Fat Leonard’s band of bribe-takers: Commander Stephen Shedd.
Commander Shedd had emailed Fat Leonard earlier that month about Mr Gillett, saying: “I want to bring AG into the loop if that is alright with you. He will be a good alternate for me, even if he is Australian.”
Commander Shedd was allegedly already on the take from Francis.
The indictment alleges Commander Shedd attended a grand dinner at Sydney’s Altitude Restaurant in June 2007, when the Blue Ridge was visiting.
The cost — $11,898 — was paid for by Francis.
Six months later, Commander Shedd was suggesting to Francis that Mr Gillett step into his shoes. Francis agreed.
Mr Gillett joined five US officers for a four-day stay at the JW Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong. Francis picked up the tab of over $US600 per head a night, along with the bill for the lavish $18,000 Alsace room dinner.
Throughout 2008, according to the indictment, Mr Gillett became deeply ingrained in the conspiracy.
The conspirators set up secret email accounts the Navy couldn’t see. The indictment says that, “Having been recruited to the conspiracy by Commander Shedd, AG had initiated a cooldtoad.com account at Commander Shedd’s direction”.
Mr Gillett’s was email@example.com.
In August and October, the indictment lists instances of Mr Gillett emailing Francis US Navy Ship schedules. It claims Commander Shedd urged Mr Gillett to accede to Francis’s demands.
Prostitutes, hotels and haute cuisine
The full extent of Mr Gillett’s alleged spoils is unclear.
Aside from the lavish meal and accommodation in Hong Kong in January 2008, the indictment says there was a week at the Shangri-La in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, in May 2008.
Later, in November, Mr Gillett and three fellow 7th Fleet officers also allegedly spent four nights back at the Shangri-La in Kowloon, when, true to form, Francis’s largesse didn’t stop at the hotel lobby.
They, “dined at the Petrus Restaurant, and were entertained by prostitutes specifically flown in from Manila” the indictment claims.
Francis paid the $US55,000 bill.
Gillett becomes corruption target
Mr Gillett has not yet faced any legal consequences for his alleged actions.
The ABC has been told by several sources that he has been questioned by Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers. Soon after, he resigned from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and has recently found work as a defence contractor in Canberra.
When approached by the ABC, Alex Gillett said: “Given the matter is subject to an ongoing police investigation, it is inappropriate for me to discuss this matter with you.”
That investigation is being conducted entirely behind closed doors.
Five years since Francis’s arrest, more than four years since the ABC established the AFP first conducted interviews to assist the US investigation, and well over a year since Australian authorities were put on notice that the US had evidence it believed pointed to Mr Gillett’s involvement in the corruption scandal, those authorities are yet to reveal whether the former sailor will be charged or face possible extradition to the United States.
The ADF told ABC: “As this matter is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), it is not appropriate to provide further comment on any individual’s alleged involvement in this investigation. Any further enquiries relating to the investigation are a matter for the AFP.”
The AFP told ABC it was, “working in conjunction with the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) and the [United States US Defense Criminal Investigative Service] DCIS to investigate any Australian involvement in the alleged corruption”.
“As this matter is ongoing, it is not appropriate to provide further comment,” it added.
Many of those facing criminal charges in the US have pleaded guilty, admitting the extensive evidence against them, including email and phone trails about money and a host of other benefits they received from Francis, put their guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.
So too has Francis, the man who corrupted so many senior military officers.
Singapore, where Francis was based, sees more Australian ships pass through it than any other navy’s, save for the United States.
The Australian Navy’s ship movements in the region were clearly a rich vein of potential revenue to Francis.
It raises the question of whether Francis may have bribed Australian officers to reveal classified Australian military information.
Australian authorities silent on criminal investigations
To date, Australian authorities have been virtually mute on whether and how the Leonard Francis scandal has involved Australian officers.
The US Navy has been investigating its own, and many of the reports it has produced in the course of that investigation have been released to the ABC.
They show the US military has sent officers to Australia to investigate GDMA.
In April 2012, 18 months before the story erupted into public consciousness with the arrest of Francis, a US NCIS Reporting Agent visited Fremantle in Western Australia.
Four US Navy ships had arrived in port for an eight-day stay. GDMA had the contract to service the ships.
A redacted 28-page investigation report reveals the NCIS agent was investigating, “Glenn Defense Marine Australia and any other potential fraud issues identified”.
The agent spoke to Australian and US Navy personnel and interviewed a local water removal sub-contractor, Muck Suckers.
The report concluded the visit, “was a success and at a reasonable cost: estimated at $US2.1 million”.
That same month, prompted by the USS Blue Ridge visit to Sydney in Oct 2011, an NCIS Special Agent interviewed unidentified Blue Ridge officers about the ship’s servicing by GDMA and other companies in Australia.
One officer claimed he’d identified a $60,000 cost overcharge by another Australian company, a competitor of GDMA.
The other expressed misgivings about GDMA’s Japan office, and said he believed the Navy had been overcharged for security during visits to Brisbane and Cairns.
On current indications, those proceedings are a long way from completion.
While Australian authorities have confirmed possible corruption of Australian personnel by Francis is under investigation, they will not say what or whom they are investigating.
Long before Mr Gillett allegedly became involved with Francis, the ABC has been told potentially corrupt links existed between Francis and other Royal Australian Navy personnel dating back a quarter of a century.
A number of sources have told the ABC Francis’s duchessing of Australian Defence personnel in Asia-Pacific dates back to the early 1990s.
One former Navy officer said he observed suspicious relationships between the aspiring tycoon and the Navy officers responsible for obtaining supplies their ships.
For instance, Francis would meet select Australian personnel as an Australian Navy ship docked in port and whisk them away in flash cars. Some have named specific supply officers.
Another Navy source spoke about attending dinners with Francis and Francis’s father in Malaysia, saying Francis’s father offered unspecified “extras” to Australian naval officers at the end of one such meal.
The ADF declined to respond to the ABC’s questions about whether other current or former Royal Australian Navy personnel are under investigation, but told the ABC:
“Defence’s commercial arrangements with Glenn Defense Marine (Asia) PTE LTD were the subject of a number of internal reviews conducted in October 2013 and during April 2017. These reviews did not identify any irregularities requiring further examination.”
Defence confirmed it utilised the services of GDMA over eight years, from 2005 to 2013.
While some contracts apparently between GDMA and Defence appear on the government site AusTender, the department insists those services were “rendered through (a) third party,” and that, “Defence did not contract Glenn Defence Marine Asia directly”.
Francis’s company also had an Australian offshoot — Glenn Defense Marine (Australia).
Five years ago, around the time Francis was arrested, the AFP approached the company. The officers stated they were making inquiries on behalf of US authorities.
In the course of researching this story, the ABC also attempted to contact other former Navy officers whose positions would have made them vulnerable to approaches from Francis. Those officers declined to comment or respond.
While the AFP would not comment on its investigation, the ABC understands not all of the officers we identified have been questioned by police.
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Authors: Sarah Curnow and Dan Oakes
Source: ABC Investigations, ABC News
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