Former USS Chafee commander is censured in 'Fat Leonard' corruption case

A 2015 file photo of then-Naval Service Training Command Chief of Staff Capt. Heedong Choi.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: May 16, 2019

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — A former commander of the Pearl Harbor destroyer USS Chafee received a scathing censure from the secretary of the Navy accusing him of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in improper gifts from corrupt Malaysian defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis and demonstrating a “higher loyalty” to Francis than to the United States.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told Capt. Heedong Choi that “as your leadership positions increased, so too did your value to Mr. Francis.”

Francis, a ship services contractor known as “Fat Leonard,” stated that Choi had been on his “payroll” since 2001 because he “kept delivering,” Spencer said in the April 26 censure letter.

On June 6, 2009, Choi improperly solicited an “elaborate and lavish private dinner” for his marriage proposal plans with a jazz ensemble on the helipad of the Swissotel in Singapore, with Francis and/or his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, footing the $18,000 bill, according to the Navy.

Spencer said Choi in 2012 obstructed justice by wrongfully notifying Francis of an ongoing investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Korean authorities into Glenn Defense’s fraudulent business.

“Your actions have cast a shadow over the reputation of all the outstanding men and women who served during your tenure in command and time in other leadership positions,” Spencer said.

Choi was commanding officer of the Chafee from April 2008 to April 2010. He had previously held the position of executive officer, the No. 2 in command, on the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Lake Erie. From 2010 to 2013 he was a staff officer at U.S. Pacific Command.

In 2018 Choi was dismissed from his job as commanding officer of the Navy ROTC program at the State University of New York’s Maritime College, according to Navy Times.

The removal was “based on alleged personal misconduct that is the subject of an ongoing investigation,” the Navy was reported saying.

The publication said Choi had been administratively reassigned to the Navy ROTC unit at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York pending further investigation.

Francis, a 350-pound defense contractor, pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribery and fraud charges over the decadelong conspiracy involving Glenn Defense, which provided ship services to the Navy in Southeast Asia.

The Justice Department has been prosecuting the most serious cases in the Fat Leonard scandal. As of February, 33 defendants had been charged and 22 pleaded guilty.

The Navy said Choi “repeatedly and improperly solicited and accepted gifts” including free or discounted luxury hotel stays, Dom Perignon champagne and Cohiba Maduro cigars.

Spencer said Choi confirmed his loyalty to Glenn Defense in an email in which he wrote, “(A)t least by word of mouth, I’m passing on to everyone I know how great GDMA is.”

On “multiple occasions” between 2008 and 2013, Choi committed graft in wrongfully accepting gifts worth more than $25,000 in exchange for improperly endorsing Glenn Defense, facilitating inappropriate relationships between Francis and other Navy officers and sharing internal Navy information, the censure states.

Francis had a “clear and obvious” financial incentive to curry favor with senior Navy officers, with the resulting loss to U.S. taxpayers exceeding $34.8 million, Spencer said.

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