28 people have been charged so far in the so-called "Fat Leonard" bribery scandal. While the Navy has beefed up its ethics training, it also faces longstanding cultural challenges.
The Navy is still struggling to answer the ethical questions raised by the a widespread bribery case, four years after the man at the center of the scandal was arrested.
Malaysian businessman Leonard Francis, known as "Fat Leonard," pleaded guilty to bribing dozens of Navy officials to steer ships to Pacific ports owned by his company, Glenn Marine Group. Prosecutors have charged 27 people, including 21 naval officers, in connection with the scandal. Seventeen of those people have pleaded guilty, including an active-duty admiral.
Hundreds of pages of court documents show Francis handed out numerous bribes, said Mark Pletcher, the assistant U.S. attorney who has been handling the federal cases in San Diego. Navy officers were given "lavish gifts, designer handbags, and the services of prostitutes, counting into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," Pletcher said.
Francis pleaded guilty in 2015. He has reportedly been working with prosecutors to provide evidence of a bribery scheme that dates back to at least the mid-2000's and involves dozens of naval officer and civilian contractors.
The case has not only been a major criminal matter; it has also been a public embarrassment for the Navy. Tabloids and late-night comedians mocked the Navy after a particularly embarrassing round of indictments that implicated officers from the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship vessel of Pacific Fleet.
According to the indictment, Francis treated Navy officers to meals of foie gras and duck leg confit, served them cognac that cost $2000 per bottle, and hosted a party with prostitutes in Manila in which "historical memorabilia related to General Douglas MacArthur were used by the participants in sexual acts."
The embarrassment helped fuel the Navy's new attention to ethics.
"We're all human beings. We all face temptation," said Tom Creely, who teaches ethics at the Naval War College. "People such as Fat Leonard, he tries to find people's weakness."
The Navy's response is still a work in progress. It's in the process of scrapping a yearly ethics course that students could take online. Instead, it will offer face-to-face training to encourage an ongoing dialog. Navy officials are also changing officer evaluations to better emphasize the character aspect of leadership. When officers come up for promotion, the Navy will screen them for ethical standards.
"The tearing-down forces all around us are severe, both inside and outside the military," Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said. "We just need to do everything we can to strengthen our people to resist those tearing-down forces so they remain on the road to becoming the leaders that we want."
But military observers say that may not be easy, in part because of the culture of the Navy. When the Fat Leonard scandal began in the mid-2000s, some officers were suspicious of Francis and tried to raise an alarm. But Francis was able to maneuver around them, with help from other officers who are now under federal indictment.
"The current system fosters a sense of careerism. It does not pay to rock the boat," said Dan Grazier, a national security specialist with the Project on Government Oversight. "If you're the squeaky wheel, rather than getting greased, you're probably going to be sledge hammered and thrown away."
He said the Navy needs to make it easier for officers to stand up to their superiors without risking their careers. And Paulene Shanks Kaurin, who teaches applied ethics at Pacific Lutheran University, said the Navy is too quick to put the blame for problems on individuals.
Kaurin, who teaches many military students, urges the Navy to examine its own culture and ask why it produced so many officers who buckled under temptation.
"You don't have these many individuals in a system, acting this way without an institution that makes that possible," she said.