In late 2020, Leonard Francis was given a “clean bill of health” by a doctor who had been treating the notorious Malaysian defense contractor for more than two years, on extraordinary medical leave that kept him out of prison for treatment.
Despite this statement in November 2020, Francis – the mastermind of a massive corruption scandal that rocked the US Navy and tricked taxpayers out of millions of dollars – continued to avoid federal incarceration, sometimes living lavishly under house arrest with his paid insurance. Until September 4th.
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That was when the 6-foot-2-inch Francis, nicknamed “Fat Leonard” due to his over 300-pound circumference, cut the ankle bracelet he’s been wearing since 2018, and remained on the run.
Two weeks after the stunning escape, Francis’ whereabouts remain unknown. Federal authorities believe he slipped across the US-Mexico border and offered a $40,000 reward for his arrest.
Now, the history of his extraordinary medical leave is even more pressing, not only in light of his escape, but also in the wake of the trial of four Navy officers recently convicted of accepting bribes.
Lawyers for the four, who were convicted in a trial that ended in June, filed a motion on Friday demanding all information about his medical release. They sought it for years before trial but were repeatedly denied. They finally received redacted documents just weeks before the trial.
Lawyers say the case’s lead prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Mark Bleacher, continued to support keeping Francis out of prison walls for years – even though Francis was a wealthy man with international connections and motives to escape. He had pleaded guilty in 2015 to a bribery case and other charges.
“This is a foreign national with no connection to the United States, who has pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, and has contacts all over the world,” said Joseph Mancano, attorney for convicted Capt. David Newland. “And they let him live under these conditions?”
They wrote that the details behind the medical leave are relevant to Francis’ credibility and “the government’s motives in endorsing Mr. Francis’ unconventional leave and the ‘barter’ situation it created which allowed Francis to escape”.
Since 2018, Francis has been on medical leave due to what appears to be a range of medical problems that were beyond the remand system’s ability to handle, according to court records.
The terms of this release required him to wear a GPS ankle bracelet, have a 24-hour security team paid for by Francis, and follow strict restrictions on his movements outside of the private homes he was living in and which he was supposed to rent.
At the time of his escape, Francis was living in a multi-million dollar home in a gated community in San Diego’s Torrey Highlands neighborhood. Federal government officials, from the pretrial court agency that was responsible for the arrangement to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, refused to answer many questions about how Francis managed to escape.
The letter declaring Francis a “clean bill of health” to U.S. District Judge Janice Sammartino, and how it led to an emergency hearing called by the judge, is contained in 327 pages of court records sealed through January of this year.
According to the transcripts, Francis’ attorney, Devin Burstein, told the judge that the letter was part of a billing dispute with the doctor, who was Francis’ bariatric surgeon. Burstein declined to comment on the letter when it arrived this week.
In an ironic irony, Francis — who has pleaded guilty to masterminding a years-long billing fraud against the US Navy worth tens of millions of dollars — was upset when his family’s auditors thought he had been overcharged on his own. Private medical bills. Borstein told the judge that this disagreement led to a falling out with the doctor.
The doctor’s letter is one piece of the puzzle about Francis’ health status. There is little doubt based on documents released so far that Francis was ill: at one point he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and newly unsealed court records – with all specific medical information redacted – strongly suggest that for some time starting in 2018 he was In poor health.
But other information outside the court record casts his medical cases in a different light. In an interview secretly taped from his house arrest sometime in 2021 with broadcast editor Tom Wright, Francis talked about his drug regimen and public health.
Wright once asked him if his cancer was in recovery. “No,” answered Francis, and then added, “I must maintain my medical condition because that is what keeps me away. That’s why I have my freedom. If I were healthy, I certainly wouldn’t be here.”
Questions about Francis’ health condition have become clearer in the past two weeks since his escape. For more than four years, this was a closely guarded secret, debated only in the more than a dozen closed and sealed hearings, which Sammartino held.
It was also the case of defense attorneys representing the group of Navy officers who were brought to trial earlier this year. Their lawyers, who did not know about Francis’ house arrest arrangements and medical matters, had long sought more information.
“I thought he wasn’t honest about his health,” said Mankano, one of the lawyers. “I mean, one of the doctors said he’s doing fine.”
The doctor who wrote the letter declined to comment for this story. The summary letter was sent directly to Sammartino on November 24, 2020. “This letter is to inform you that Mr. Leonard Francis has been dismissed from our clinic,” it stated. “We’d like to congratulate him on his clean bill of health.”
A terrified Sammartino called for a hearing eight days later. She said she was concerned as she told other defendants and their attorneys that Francis’ release “was legitimate medical leave and, while it is no longer lawful medical leave, the court may take a different position.”
Borstein then explained that Francis and the doctor were in a dispute over bills. The lawyer said the doctor stopped treating Francis for a while – in fact, he hadn’t seen him for months – and Francis lost faith in the doctor because he thought he was overdoing it.
He said Francis is now under the care of a new medical team. But that also worried Bleacher, the lead prosecutor in all cases of the Navy bribery scandal.
Bleacher told the judge that he had only found out the day before that Francis had a new medical team and that he was “dismayed” about the late notice.
“If he has a dispute, he has something that affects this court’s decision on medical leave, we need to be the first to know,” he said.
He wanted the new doctors to report on Francis’ condition, emphasizing the need to continue leave.
“But what I really want to know is, (Does) his treatment still require that kind of medical leave, or is this the kind of outpatient treatment he can get through doctor visits to and from the facility?” Blecher said. “And maybe with COVID-19, that’s not possible, right?”
At that time the virus was surging again in the province. A new stay-at-home order will be issued within days of the hearing, hospitalizations due to the virus have increased, and case numbers will set daily records. State and federal prisons, where the virus can spread quickly, have been trying to keep their populations down, so Francis in his still frail health is unlikely to be sent back to custody.
However, Bleacher said at the hearing that Francis’ treatment had been good, based on medical records.
“I don’t want my comments to be lost on what I think is a very important basic topic,” he said, and he, in reading all of this, seems to be doing a very good job, for which I am grateful, and I think the Court is thankful, that all of this has led to such an intended result Hopefully, I now speak on behalf of everyone here as we hope for the best for Mr. Francis in his health.”
By March, Sammartino had received reports from new doctors outlining Francis’ medical condition. The revised texts shed little light on what exactly it was, but Burstein told Sammartino that Francis was in line for a series of tests and procedures in the coming weeks.
Blecher said the new reports showed Francis was “doing well” and that the prognosis was good. When Sammartino asked if medical leave was still necessary, he replied that there was still a “good reason” to keep Francis on his current living situation.
And this is where he stayed until September 4th around 7:30am, when he cut off the screen and disappeared. It took eight hours from the time the tracker set off an alarm to realize he had escaped and to start the chase.
Francis was due to be sentenced on Thursday. The hearing is still on the calendar, although it is unlikely that he will be judged.
The plea deal called for Francis to waive $35 million to the government. While he paid $5 million of that amount several years ago, he ran away without paying the rest. Mankano said he still owes the government $30 million.
How long his sentence would remain is unknown. By cooperating with the government, Francis had expected a significant reduction in the potential 25-year sentence he would have faced under the three offenses he had pleaded guilty.
But it is possible that this agreement is now void. There is a clause in it that states that by committing nearly a dozen acts, such as failing to appear in court or committing new crimes, Francis would have violated the deal.
In this case, the government can bring any charges “including those that have been refused or promised to be dismissed or that have not been brought as a result of this agreement.”
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