SAN DIEGO — The felony convictions of four Navy officers in one of the worst bribery cases in the maritime branch’s history were vacated due to prosecutorial misconduct Wednesday, the latest misstep in the government’s yearslong efforts in going after dozens of military officials tied to a defense contractor nicknamed Fat Leonard.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino called the misconduct “outrageous” and agreed to allow the four men to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $100 fine each.
The surprising turn of events occurred at a sentencing hearing in federal court in San Diego for the former officers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Ko, who was brought on after the officers were tried last year, admitted to “serious issues” with prosecutorial misconduct and asked the judge to vacate the men’s convictions.
He said his office does not agree with all of the allegations of misconduct but some were true.
“There were pretty obviously serious issues that affect our ability to go forward” defending the convictions or seeking a new trial, Ko told the judge.
The officers — former Capts. David Newland, James Dolan and David Lausman and former Cmdr. Mario Herrera — were previously convicted by a federal jury on various counts of accepting bribes from foreign defense contractor Leonard Francis, who admitted to bilking the Navy out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.
On Wednesday the four men pleaded guilty to a charge of destruction of government property, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Defense attorneys had long accused the prosecution of lying to the court and unfairly pressuring witnesses to testify on the stand to a narrated script.
Francis fled from house arrest in San Diego nearly a year ago in what was also seen as a misstep by the prosecution for allowing him to not be held behind bars. He was later captured in Venezuela, where he remains.
More than two dozen Navy officials, defense contractors and others have been convicted on various fraud and corruption charges in the case, which spanned years. It was not immediately clear whether Wednesday’s development may jeopardize the other convictions.
A decade ago, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel as part of a federal sting. Investigators say he and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, bribed officers so he could overcharge for supplying ships or charge for fake services at ports he controlled in Southeast Asia.
The case, which delved into salacious details about service members cheating on their wives and seeking out prostitutes, was an embarrassment to the Pentagon. The U.S. attorney’s office handled the prosecution, offering independence from the military justice system.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Associated Press also left messages with lead prosecutor Mark Pletcher and two other prosecutors involved in the case.