The White House has confirmed the release of the notorious fugitive billionaire known as ‘Fat Leonard’ in a prisoner exchange with Venezuela. Leonard Glenn Francis orchestrated a $35 million (£30 million) fraud against the US Navy and had escaped US custody in 2022.
As part of the deal, ten US citizens held in Venezuela were also freed, while the US released Alex Saab, an aide to Venezuela’s president.
Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian businessman, was detained in September 2022 while attempting to board a flight from Venezuela to Russia.
He had escaped house arrest in California earlier that month after admitting to his involvement in a massive scam that defrauded the US Navy of tens of millions of dollars and implicated numerous navy officers.
Prosecutors revealed that Francis used his Singapore-based business, which serviced US naval vessels, to defraud the US Navy while offering cash and gifts as bribes to American officers. His plea agreement documents accused him of providing US officials with millions of dollars worth of gifts, including extravagant trips, high-end alcohol, Spanish suckling pigs, Cuban cigars, and access to prostitution services.
First arrested in 2013, Francis pleaded guilty to offering $500,000 (£444,000) in bribes in 2015. Journalist Tom Wright, who collaborated with Francis on a podcast titled ‘Fat Leonard,’ highlighted how Francis amassed considerable wealth by overcharging the US Navy in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Mr Wright added that Francis had agreed to do the podcast as he was “furious” over what he saw as a cover-up. “Admiral after admiral who were involved with him were not taken to court criminally. In the US, it was more lower level officers [who were taken to court].”
In a statement, President Joe Biden said Francis will now be “sentenced for his lead role in a brazen bribery and corruption case”.
Alluding to the other US nationals released by Venezuela, he added: “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”
The swap deal will also see Mr Saab, a close aide of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, returned.
He faced allegations of laundering money on behalf of the Maduro government, which he denied.
Mr Saab was extradited to the US in 2021 after being arrested during a stopover in Cape Verde.
The Maduro regime in Venezuela has consistently called for the release of Mr. Saab, considering him a ‘diplomat.’
Mr. Saab, a Colombian-born businessman, was apprehended while his plane stopped for refueling in Cape Verde in 2020, following an Interpol ‘red notice.’ He was en route to Iran at the time.
Venezuela’s government labeled him an ‘envoy,’ asserting that he was on a mission to procure medical supplies for the pandemic crisis in Iran.
However, Cape Verdean authorities determined that he did not possess diplomatic immunity and subsequently extradited him to the United States. In the U.S., he faced accusations of money laundering and bribery.
U.S. prosecutors allege that Mr. Saab diverted $350 million (£276 million) from Venezuelan state contracts by exploiting advantageous exchange rates fraudulently.
He then allegedly laundered the money in the US before finally transferring it to accounts controlled by him and his alleged associate.
The US treasury department has described Mr Saab as a “profiteer orchestrating a vast corruption network” that it says enabled “President Nicolás Maduro and his regime to significantly profit from food imports and distribution in Venezuela”.
Mr. Saab refutes the charges, and the Maduro government, in solidarity, withdrew from U.S.-backed talks with the Venezuelan opposition in 2021 to protest Mr. Saab’s extradition.
The White House disclosed the release of individuals, including Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright, with six of the 10 Americans termed as ‘wrongfully detained’ by Venezuela.
Furthermore, the White House mentioned Venezuela’s commitment to releasing 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, including opposition figure Roberto Abdul, and suspending arrest warrants for three others.
This recent agreement isn’t the first prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Venezuela. In October 2022, Venezuela released seven jailed U.S. citizens in exchange for two nephews of Mr. Maduro’s wife, known as the ‘narco-nephews,’ who were serving 18-year sentences in the U.S. for attempting to smuggle cocaine.
Relations improved when the U.S. eased sanctions on Venezuela in October in exchange for President Maduro allowing international observers for the upcoming presidential election. However, the U.S. reiterated its demand for the release of ‘wrongfully detained’ U.S. citizens in Venezuela, threatening to reimpose sanctions if not addressed.
In response, human rights groups in Venezuela are calling for the release of approximately 300 individuals listed as political prisoners in Venezuelan jails.