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SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A retired Navy officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to his role in the long-running “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal, two months before trial was set to begin for him and eight other high-ranking officials.

According to the plea agreement, Robert Gorsuch, a chief warrant officer, admitted to accepting a litany of perks — gifts, fine dining, hotel stays and entertainment in exchange for slipping confidential information to Leonard Francis, a military contractor operating in the Eastern Pacific known for his gregarious personality and girth, earning him the nickname “ Fat Leonard.”

It is the type of corruption that has become familiar as the massive prosecution has continued to unfold in San Diego federal court over the past eight years. At least 26 people, including Francis, have pleaded guilty in the scheme. Many others have faced discipline by the Navy.

Gorsuch, 54, of Mississippi, pleaded guilty to one count of bribery and could be sentenced as early as November.

Gorsuch was part of a group of nine Navy officials indicted relatively late in the investigation, in 2017. The sprawling, detailed indictment outlined a bribery scheme deeply entrenched in the top tiers of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet and its command ship, the Blue Ridge.

He was the most junior among the group, which includes a retired rear admiral who was once the Navy’s director of intelligence operations, and a captain who was chief of staff to the commander of the Seventh Fleet.

From 2005 to 2008, Gorsuch served as the Seventh Fleet’s flag administration officer, providing administrative support to the fleet’s commander and other senior staff, according to court records.

He and others are portrayed in the indictment as a tight group — calling themselves a “Band of Brothers” and “Cool Kids” — who enthusiastically worked on the side to help steer business to Francis, such as passing confidential information on ship schedules and visits, as well as bad-mouthing Francis’ competitors.

As a reward, they were lavished with fine gifts and “boys night out” celebrations that at times have included the services of prostitutes, a $2,000 box of cigars and a $2,000 bottle of Hennessy Paradis Extra, according to the indictment.

Gorsuch admitted to taking more than $45,000 in bribes from Francis, including all-expenses-paid stays at hotels in the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan in 2007 and 2008, according to the plea agreement. One party that Gorsuch and others attended at the Manila Hotel in the Philippines cost Francis some $15,000, the plea states.

Gorsuch also admitted to sending Francis classified information in 2007 describing the planned movements of two U.S. Navy ships, the Tarawa and Hopper, according to the plea agreement.

A similar request came from Francis in 2008, the plea states. Gorsuch responded: “Sked fluctuating a lot right now – should start to solidify next week. Will drop you an e-mail when they are done chopping it up next week and we can talk.”

Gorsuch was accused of playing a role in keeping alive the decades-long scheme — which Francis admitted cost the Navy at least $35 million. With the turnover of some of the Seventh Fleet leadership imminent in 2007, Francis asked Gorsuch for biographical information and his personal read on the incoming officials to see if they would be amenable to continuing the corrupt tradition, the indictment states.

In an email, Gorsuch called one incoming official “a good guy — already talked with him and he wants to meet you too,” and he further explained the new chief of staff was “a great guy, easy going, but will need to be eased into fine dining, etc.,” according to the indictment.

In another email, he addressed Francis as “Boss” and said he’d be working on personality profiles of replacements, the indictment states.

Gorsuch largely communicated with Francis via an email service called Cooltoad, with the account name “lyinginthedark.” Gorsuch boasted the service was one “that the military folks can’t block or track; and best of all it can be accessed from the ship,” according to the indictment.

The group that Gorsuch was indicted alongside has aggressively fought the charges. His eight co-defendants are set to begin trial Nov. 1. It will be the first criminal trial in the case.

Francis, who has been in poor health since his 2013 arrest in San Diego and has cooperated with the investigation, has yet to be sentenced.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com

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