A Navy commander charged with accepting gifts of food, drink and prostitutes in the service’s long-running “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal was of too little value to the out-sized contractor to even conspire with, his lawyer argued Wednesday during the military’s equivalent of a preliminary hearing at Naval Station Norfolk.
Cmdr. Jason Starmer is the second service member to be charged by the military in the decadelong conspiracy that uncovered widespread corruption in the Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet.
He is accused of violating general orders by accepting expensive dinners, drinks and prostitutes from September 2012 through April 2013 from contractor Leonard Francis, the disgraced owner and chief executive of Glenn Defense Marine Asia.
Starmer also faces charges of lying to investigators, conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, patronizing a prostitute, adultery and graft.
According to a Navy biography, Starmer received extensive flight and foreign officer training from the service before being posted at the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Bangkok, Thailand.
That’s where he was serving as director of operations when he was introduced to Francis at a karaoke bar in Singapore in September 2012, Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Jill Kelley said in phone testimony Wednesday. The advisory group organizes combined military exercises, education and training and foreign military sales and is responsible to the U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. ambassador, according to its website.
Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to presiding over a conspiracy involving “scores” of Navy officials, tens of millions of dollars in fraud and millions of dollars in bribes and gifts in return for lucrative contracts to provide services to ships while in southeast Asia, according to the Justice Department. At least 20 other current or former Navy officials have been charged in the scheme.
Kelley said Francis deployed a “grooming process” by which he targeted people who would be susceptible to vices.
”He would spot and assess these individuals to see if they were willing to take these gifts,” she said.
Coast Guard Lt. Robert Canoy, Starmer’s attorney, said the officer’s job was the overall planning of operations, not the day-to-day port services that Francis’ company provided. Starmer was a “lowly O4 at the time,” he said, referring to the rank of lieutenant commander, and would have been of little value to Francis, he said.
Canoy also questioned government documents including meal receipts, text messages and emails that Navy prosecutor Cmdr. Angela Tang said prove Starmer knowingly accepted dinners, drinks and the services of prostitutes and acted on behalf of Francis and his company during a “taxi mafia” strike. That strike blocked the company’s contracted buses and prevented USS Nimitz sailors from returning to the aircraft carrier during a port visit in early May 2013, Kelley said.
But Tang said 7th Fleet leadership was angered over how the incident was handled. Kelley testified that Starmer asked someone to “lay off” the contractor, advocacy that Tang said was “to the detriment of the Navy.”
On charges related to prostitution and making a false statement, Canoy said his client was not involved in the “exchange of money, and the word prostitution was never used” in text messages between Francis and Starmer.
Neither did NCIS agents directly ask Starmer if he knew the women were prostitutes during a November 2014 interview in which the commander admitted to the sexual encounters, Canoy said, referring to a transcript. Canoy said Starmer was told by Francis that the women were friends.
During questioning from Tang, Kelley said Francis put Starmer in contact with a female pimp to arrange for the second of the two women. The commander later complained to Francis that the woman was on her phone the whole time and had mosquito bite scabs on her body.
Monday’s hearing will help determine whether there is probable cause to go forward with a court martial. If convicted on all charges, Starmer could face 17 years in prison. He enlisted in the Navy in 1989 and received his commission in 1996, according to his Navy biography.