Face it: Navy’s 7th Fleet scandal is malignant

The Justice Department’s latest press release doesn’t do justice to what has occurred in the now-infamous “Fat Leonard” Francis case. But DoJ provides a link to the 79-page indictment of nine Navy officers — the latest in the long-running investigation of crooked contracting and bad behavior in the 7th Fleet. In that document, you find the lurid details.

Justice attorneys apply words like staggering, epic, and unconscionable to what they call fleecing, betrayal, and flagrant corruption. Words usually reserved for gangsters and embezzlers, but not for high-ranking Navy officers — captains and rear admirals. People with responsibility for billion-dollar ships and the thousands of sailors staffing them.

I’ve been reading and analyzing the 2018 budget proposal from the Trump administration, and there’s a lot to digest and comment on there. But my mind keeps running back to the Monday release and the indictments it outlines. They center on the many forms of bribes the officers accepted over several years from Leonard and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, the Singapore company awarded contracts for servicing U.S. ships while on duty far from home. And the many ways the officers did business and tried to keep it all secret.

Some of the details leave you bug-eyed. Dinners of foie gras terrine, duck leg confit, and ox-tail soup followed by $2,000 bottles of cognac and $85 cigars. Bacchanalian parties complete with prostitutes. Deluxe hotel rooms. Expensive gifts including GDMA corporate neckties. Think of that last one: Navy officers dressing up to please a contractor who was bribing them — yuk.

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Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Shedd and his wife received $25,000 watches, according to the indictment.

In return, officers allegedly ginned up ways to maneuver whole groups of ships to the ports where GDMA received overpriced contracts. One officer, Marine Corps Col. Enrico Deguzman, allegedly had Glenn cover his wife’s $37,000 hotel tab — the joint is called the Shangri-La — in return for data about a potential competitor to Glenn’s company.

Equally repulsive to the scope and scale of the bribes and conspiracies are the fawning emails the officers sent Leonard. “Copy all your past email re FISC and Subic. We’ll find alternatives until ‘Leonard’s World’ is fixed,” wrote Deguzman, referring to the location where a Navy submarine was going for service, using a GDMA competitor.

On and on it goes for nearly 80 pages.

So far, 25 Navy people have been charged in this case. According to Justice, 13 have pleaded guilty. The investigation isn’t over.

Some years ago, Wall Street Journal columnist (and one-time Ronald Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan wrote that even large, rich, proud and highly respected institutions can be brought low by a few rotten individuals. Noonan, an observant Catholic, was referring to the Church. Even such a morally influential pillar as that, Noonan worried,  was in danger of severe loss from the cases of sexually deviant priests.

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So it is with the Navy, its fleet and it people perhaps the most visible symbol of U.S. strength and influence around the world. What matters now is how the top leadership — presumably untainted by the 7th Fleet’s scandal — deals with it.

We don’t know specifically what Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is doing about the still-active scandal. He said Tuesday, “This behavior is inconsistent with our standards and the expectations the nation has for us as military professionals. It damages the trust that the nation places in us, and is an embarrassment to the Navy.” That’s a careful understatement.

In reality, for the Navy, this case is like unchecked corrosion gouging its way through the steel hull of a flagship carrier, threatening to sink it. The only right thing is to expose it,  find the outer edges of it, excise everything circumscribed, and weld in new steel. Treat it like cancer.