Here's how to make sure you don't end up your own Fat Leonard scandal

By Lizann Lightfoot

In case you haven’t heard, the Fat Leonard scandal is a bribery case where many high-ranking Navy officials are charged with accepting lavish gifts and parties from a defense contract company in Singapore. The defense contractor, a large man known as “Fat Leonard” Francis, gave Navy officers fancy hotel rooms and prostitutes in exchange for classified information that allowed the company to defraud the Navy for millions of dollars in defense contracts.

The scandal first broke in 2013, but new indictment charges have been filed recently, citing a retired admiral and several Navy captains for actions from 2008 to 2014. If convicted, they face jail time and a loss of their military retirement pay.

The scandal sounds very foreign and exotic: High-ranking military officers at foreign ports enjoyed lavish sex parties and drank up thousands of dollars of Dom Perignon champagne. Most military members never expect to find themselves in that situation. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you.

Bribery does not always appear in the form of prostitutes in fancy hotel rooms. Sometimes it looks like much cheaper, innocent gifts that are still illegal. There are many ways lower-ranking service members can break the rules of ethics and bribery, possibly without realizing it. The more you know about the rules, the less likely you are to find yourself in a Fat Leonard scandal.

Ethics and bribery rules for service members

Article 134 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) prohibits acts of bribery and graft. Bribery means the intention of influencing someone in an official matter. Graft means giving compensation for services performed in an official position when no compensation is supposed to be given.

These include:

  • Accepting an article of value from an organization or person while the service member is managing official duties
  • Receiving an article of value in exchange for official services rendered
  • Promising or giving an article of value to someone with the intention of influencing them or compensating them for services

The DoD has published a guide for employee’s Standards of Conduct. It gives very specific examples of situations where DoD employees can or cannot accept gifts. Government employees cannot accept gifts from any company seeking to work with the DoD. Large or repeated gifts are considered bribes. It doesn’t matter if the gift offered is a free golf tournament or a monthly free lunch–both are unacceptable.

What gifts are not permitted?

  • A military service member cannot accept compensation for any work you perform as a government employee
  • You may not accept any gifts from a prohibited source (someone seeking business with the DoD or regulated by the DoD)
  • You cannot accept any cash or more than $50 from one source in a year
  • You cannot accept free tickets worth more than $20. You also may not “buy down” the tickets to the $20 limit. You can only accept them if you pay the full market price
  • You cannot accept free meals at DoD-related events except in very specific conditions where your supervisor lists in writing why it is relevant for you to do so
  • You cannot give or request a gift valuing more than $10 from anyone higher in the chain of command. You cannot coerce co-workers to contribute more than $10 to a gift for their leadership

What’s okay for service members to accept?

  • You may accept small gifts (T-shirt, coffee, etc) as long as the gift is worth less than $20 and the total value for the year is less than $50
  • You may keep any prize won by entering your name into a public contest
  • You can keep any gifts from personal or family friends, even if they are above the limit
  • You can accept military discount rates that are available to all members of the military
  • Gifts offered to a wounded veteran are exempt from the limits listed above
  • You can keep anything you or your spouse earn from outside business activities that you prepare for or conduct on your own non-official time
  • You may keep scholarships or grants you earn
  • You may attend public events or seminars for free if they are attended by more than 100 people, are worth less than $375, are attended by diverse organizations, and the tickets are offered by someone besides the event sponsor
  • From foreign governments, service members may accept gifts up to $390
  • On holidays and birthdays, you can accept gifts from co-workers up to $10 per person or $300 total if it is a group gift
  • You may attend a dinner in someone’s home and bring a host/hostess gift up to $20
  • If you are applying for a new job after the military, you may accept travel, lodging, and meal expenses from a potential employer

If you think you are being offered a gift that is unacceptable or possibly bribery, then you have several options. You can decline the gift, return the gift, pay the giver the market value for the gift, or destroy the gift if it is under $100. If you follow these guidelines, you will never get caught in your own Fat Leonard scandal, and you can finish your military service without worrying about bribery charges being filed against you later.

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at