SAN DIEGO (AP) — The felony convictions of four former Navy officers in one of the worst corruption cases in maritime branch history were overturned Wednesday following allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, the latest setback in the government’s years-long effort to prosecute dozens of military officials. linked to a defense contractor nicknamed Fat Leonard.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino called the misconduct “scandalous” and agreed to allow the four men to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $100 fine each. Last year, after the trial, Sammartino ruled that the lead federal prosecutor had committed “gross misconduct” in withholding information from defense attorneys, but said at the time that was not enough to clear the case. affair.
The surprising turn came during a sentencing hearing in federal court in San Diego.
Assistant United States Attorney Peter Ko, who was hired after last year’s trial, admitted “serious problems” and asked the judge to overturn the officers’ criminal convictions.
He said his office did not agree with all the allegations, but that mistakes were made.
“There were obviously serious issues that affect our ability to move forward” to defend the convictions or seek a new trial, Ko told the judge, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Andrew Haden, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Southern California, reiterated that in a statement after the hearing.
“As we stated in court, we do not agree with all of the allegations or characterizations contained in the motions or in court,” Haden said. “We recognize and regret, however, that mistakes have been made, and we have an obligation to ensure fairness and justice. The resolutions of the cases of these defendants reflect this.
Haden added that it “is also significant that the four officers who appeared in court today admitted for the first time, under oath, that they had broken the law and were guilty of crimes related to to their official duties.
Officers – former captains. David Newland, James Dolan and David Lausman and former Cmdr. Mario Herrera — had previously been convicted by a federal jury of various counts of accepting bribes from foreign defense contractor Leonard Francis and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, or GDMA.
On Wednesday, three of them each pleaded guilty to one count of disclosing information to Francis, and Lausman pleaded guilty to one count of destroying government property, for smashing a hard drive with a hammer.
Defense attorney Todd Burns, who represented Dolan, said his client was relieved to have this behind him. He and defense attorneys for the other three men had filed hundreds of pages describing how the months-long trial had been filled with misconduct by prosecutors hiding evidence, ignoring false testimony and concealing facts that called into question the credibility of key witnesses.
“The government has tremendous power to compel things, and that power is always evident in this context,” Burns said.
He said his client had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor after a decade of battling the allegations against him, “bleeding legal bills” and continued stress on his family.
“These four men faced absolutely devastating financial and custodial sentences from initial prosecutors,” he said. “Then they were offered a deal to plead a misdemeanor and a $100 fine to step aside and end this brutal chapter.”
The men spent more than a year asking for a new trial. Their case was the only one to go to trial among more than two dozen defendants charged. The jury was deadlocked and returned no verdict on charges against a fifth defendant, retired Rear Admiral Bruce Loveless, and prosecutors later dropped those charges.
Nearly two dozen Navy officials, defense contractors and others have been convicted and sentenced on various fraud and corruption charges.
Several others are awaiting sentencing next month. It is not known if this could compromise these cases.
Francis admitted to bribing dozens of high-ranking officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts. Prosecutors say he defrauded the Navy of more than $35 million.
Three weeks before the Malaysian defense contractor was sentenced last year, Francis made a stunning escape, cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing the San Diego residence where he was under house arrest.
This escape was also seen by some as a faux pas on the part of the prosecution, which freed him from being held behind bars. He was later captured in Venezuela, where he remains.
The four former officers had served in the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Eastern Pacific, where Francis’ company provided ships for decades.
Francis was arrested at a San Diego hotel in September 2013 in connection with a federal operation. Investigators say he and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, bribed officers so he could overcharge ship supplies or charge for bogus services at ports he controlled in Southeast Asia.
The case, which delved into salacious details about servicemen cheating on their wives and stalking prostitutes, embarrassed the Pentagon. The U.S. Attorney’s Office handled the prosecution, providing independence from the military justice system.