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Judge dismisses felony convictions of 5 retired military officers in U.S. navy bribery case

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis. (U.S. Marshals Service via AP, File) This undated photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Leonard Francis. (U.S. Marshals Service via AP, File)
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SAN DIEGO -

A U.S. federal judge on Tuesday dismissed the felony convictions of five retired military officers who had admitted to accepting bribes from a Malaysian contractor nicknamed "Fat Leonard" in one of the navy's biggest corruption cases.

The dismissals came at the request of the government -- not the defence -- citing prosecutorial errors.

Retired U.S. navy officers Donald Hornbeck, Robert Gorsuch and Jose Luis Sanchez, and U.S. Marine Corps Col. Enrico DeGuzman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disclosing information on Tuesday, while U.S. navy officer Stephen Shedd's entire case was thrown out. Their defence lawyers could not be immediately reached for comment.

It marked the latest setback to the government's yearslong efforts in going after dozens of military officials tied to defence contractor Leonard Francis, nicknamed " Fat Leonard." The enigmatic figure -- who was six-foot-three and weighed 350 pounds at one time -- owned and operated Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd., which supplied food, water and fuel to U.S. navy vessels.

Francis is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to offering more than US$500,000 in cash bribes, along with other gifts and wild sex parties in Southeast Asia, to navy officials, defence contractors and others. The scheme allowed him to bilk the maritime service out of at least US$35 million by getting commanders to redirect ships to ports he controlled and overcharging for services, according to the prosecution. He was arrested in 2013 in a sting operation in San Diego.

Prosecutors said in legal filings outlining their request for Tuesday's dismissals that the action does not mean the defendants did not commit the charged crimes but because information was withheld from the defence and other mistakes were made, they wanted to ensure justice was served fairly.

In 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino ruled the former lead federal prosecutor committed "flagrant misconduct" by withholding information from defence lawyers. In September, the felony convictions of four former navy officers were also vacated. The four men pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to pay a US$100 fine each.

The dismissals by Sammartino on Tuesday come weeks before Francis is due back in court to set a date for his sentencing.

Francis returned to the U.S. late last year after a daring escape from his house arrest in San Diego in 2022 weeks before his original sentencing hearing. He was later captured in Venezuela, which extradited him to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange.

The escape was also seen by some as a misstep by the prosecution for allowing him to not be held behind bars.

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