The US Navy’s “Fat Leonard” Scandal: How the Virtuous Fall

Last March, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed the latest indictment in the so-called “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal that has haunted the Navy since 2014 and continues to grow. “Fat Leonard” is Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian citizen and the owner of Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), which provided support to the Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Southeast Asia from 2006-2014. When Navy ships pull into foreign ports, local companies are contracted to provide marine husbanding, port security, refueling and waste management services, ground transportation for sailors and Marines in port, etc. GDMA offered these services, but also much more: for a number of senior Navy officials, Francis paid for prostitutes, extravagant meals, luxury hotel stays, and other travel expenses, and provided gifts of both cash and goods. All he asked for in return was assurances that Seventh Fleet ships would use ports Francis controlled, classified information about Navy operations (including ships’ schedules), sensitive information on the business practices of his competitors, and assistance in facilitating a price gouging scheme that yielded GMDA excess profits of $35 million over eight years. The total number of people charged in the “Fat Leonard” scandal now comes to 27, including two admirals, fifteen other senior active duty naval officers, an NCIS special agent, and two contracting supervisors; another 200 additional individuals remain under scrutiny by prosecutors. This was a full-fledged cultural problem, not just a case of a few bad apples.

The details of what these men got up to in port are quite salacious, but my focus in this post is instead on what this scandal exposes about how corruption can spread among decorated public servants and what can be done to prevent similar scandals in the future. Every single one of the senior officers charged had been trained to be self-disciplined and to put mission and country above self—it’s what those of us who serve in the military vow to do. Each officer had a long and distinguished career before becoming entangled with Francis and his lurid scheme. Yet each sold his integrity, and sold out his country, for immediate gratification. Why? Continue reading

Addressing the Risk of Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector: The Case of the Buhari Plan

North East Nigeria is on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis. The region has historically been marked by poverty and underdevelopment, and more recently has been ravaged by Boko Haram. In an attempt to address both the current crisis and the longstanding poverty of North East Nigeria, on October 26, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI) to “serve as the primary national strategy, coordination and advisory body for all humanitarian interventions, transformational and developmental efforts in the North East region of Nigeria.” PCNI is chiefly responsible for overseeing and ensuring the execution of the Buhari Plan, a four-volume, roughly 800 page, five-year blueprint for the comprehensive humanitarian relief and socioeconomic stabilization of the North East. Projects include unconditional cash transfers and the deployment of mobile health units and will be linked with the current UNOCHA Humanitarian Response Plan. The total budgetary requirement is 2.13 trillion Naira (approximately US$6.7 billion), of which the Nigerian Federal Government commits an estimated 634 billion Naira and the remaining 1.49 trillion Naira is anticipated to come from “many DFI’s, International Aid Agencies, NGO’s and the Private Sector Stakeholders.” (PCNI also replaced previous initiatives launched under former President Goodluck Jonathan: the Safe Schools Initiative (SSI), which focused on making schools safer for children, and the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE), whose aim was to kick start the economies in North East Nigeria and reposition the region for long-term prosperity.)

On the surface, the Buhari Plan sounds like a step in the right direction. But given the controversies over fraud and corruption surrounding PINE, PCNI’s predecessor, there are reasons to worry. Even putting those past issues aside, there is inevitably a high risk of corruption in a large government plans like the PCNI—especially in an environment as notoriously corrupt as Nigeria—and the current mechanisms for mitigating the risk of fraud and corruption are insufficient.

In order to reduce the corruption risks associated with a project like PCNI, the Nigerian government—and the international donors and other stakeholders providing financial support for the project—should focus on reducing the opportunities for corruption in three principal ways: (1) embedding a fraud prevention strategy; (2) employing external, independent auditors; and (3) maintaining transparency of activities and funding flows. To its credit, the Buhari Plan has already integrated aspects of these approaches. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement: Continue reading

Corruption as Culture and Health Care Fraud in Brooklyn

The astonishing prevalence of health care fraud in the Russian-speaking communities of Brighton Beach and Coney Island in New York City presents an interesting case study on the causes of corruption. The Brighton Beach-Coney Island area is populated by people who immigrated from one of the most corrupt countries in the world to one of the least. You can take the person out of the corrupt system, but does this remove the propensity to engage in corrupt acts from the person?

In the wake of a recent spate of health care fraud scandals in Russian-speaking New York City communities (as well as a scheme to defraud Medicaid perpetuated by dozens of Russian diplomats), the facts and some commentators suggest no. Brighton Beach has the second highest rate of Medicaid and Medicare-related malfeasance in the United States. In February 2012, federal authorities uncovered the largest no-fault insurance fraud scheme in United States history, which was operated out of Brighton Beach-based clinics. A law-enforcement official drew a direct link between “the Russian mind-set” that “if you’re not scamming the government…you’re looked upon as a patsy” and this widespread fraud. Professor Mark Galeotti expanded on this point, suggesting that “from cradle to grave” Russians have been inculcated to “bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes.”

I think “old habits die hard” as an explanation is too simplistic and uncomfortably resembles notions (discussed elsewhere on this blog) that corruption is an inherent cultural touchstone in certain societies. Furthermore, emerging evidence shows that Russians within Russia are developing a moral aversion to bribery.

An alternative explanation for the puzzle of the Brighton Beach health care fraud phenomenon is below. Under this model, culture is not the only, and perhaps not the first, link in the chain of causation. Continue reading