SAN DIEGO -- It started with an invitation to the Broadway production of The Lion King in Tokyo for the Navy commander, his wife and children.
In the end, the Malaysian defence contractor known in military circles as "Fat Leonard" would use prostitutes, plane tickets and other bribes to hook the US officer into a scheme that overbilled the Pentagon by millions, investigators say in court papers.
The misdeeds include $10 million in inflated bills in a single year for servicing US Navy ships at Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri, Thailand.
The accusations unfolding in a federal court case in San Diego signal serious national security breaches and corruption, setting off high-level meetings at the Pentagon with the threat that more people, including those of higher ranks, could be swept up as the investigation continues. A hearing on Friday could set a trial date.
Navy commander Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz passed confidential information on ship routes to Leonard Francis's Singapore-based company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd, or GDMA, according to the court documents.
Misiewicz and Francis moved Navy vessels like chess pieces, diverting aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships to Asian ports with lax oversight where Francis could inflate costs, according to the criminal complaint.
The firm overcharged the Navy millions for fuel, food and other services it provided, and invented tariffs by using phony port authorities, the prosecution alleges.
US navy officer Michael "Vannak Khem" Misiewicz embraces his aunt Samrith Sokha, 72, during a call at the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville in 2010.
"It's pretty big when you have one person who can dictate where ships are going to go and being influenced by a contractor," said retired Rear Adm Terry McKnight, who has no direct knowledge of the investigation.
"A lot of people are saying how could this happen?"
So far, authorities have arrested Misiewicz; Francis; his company's general manager of global government contracts, Alex Wisidagama; and a senior Navy investigator, John Beliveau.
Beliveau is accused of keeping Francis abreast of the probe and advising him on how to respond in exchange for such things as luxury trips and prostitution services. All have pleaded not guilty. Defence attorneys declined to comment.
Senior Navy officials said they believe that more people would likely be implicated in the scheme, but it's too early to tell how many or how high this will go in the naval ranks. Other unnamed Navy personnel are mentioned in court documents as receiving gifts from Francis.
Francis is legendary in military circles in that part of the world, said McKnight, who does not know him personally. He is known for extravagance. His bungalow in an upscale Singapore neighbourhood drew spectators yearly since 2007 to its lavish, outdoor Christmas decorations, which The Straits Times described as rivalling Orchard Road with replicas of snowmen, lighted towering trees, and Chinese and Japanese ornaments.
"He's a larger-than-life figure," McKnight said. "You talk to any captain on any ship that has sailed in the Pacific and they will know exactly who he is."
Navy spokesman, Rear Adm John Kirby said Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agents initiated their probe in 2010, but declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
That same year, Misiewicz caught the world's attention when he made an emotional return as a US Naval commander to his native Cambodia, where he had been rescued as a child from the violence of the Khmer Rouge and adopted by an American woman. His homecoming was widely covered by international media.
Meanwhile, Francis was recruiting him for his scheme, according to court documents.
Misiewicz's family went to a Lion King production in Tokyo with a company employee and was later offered prostitution services, according to the criminal complaint.
Within months, the Navy commander was providing Francis ship movement schedules for the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group and other ships, the prosecution alleges. Shortly after that, the manager wrote to Francis: "We got him!!:)," according to court documents.
Misiewicz would refer to Francis as "Big Brother" or "Big Bro" in e-mails from a personal account, while Francis would call him "Little Brother" or "Little Bro".
The company bilked the Navy out of $10 million in just one year at Laem Chabang alone, US Attorney Laura Duffy said.
In December 2011, the two exchanged e-mails about the schedule of the USS Blue Ridge, investigators say. According to court documents, Francis wrote Misiewicz: "Bro, Slide a Bali visit in after Jakarta, and Dili Timor after Bali."
The complaint alleges Misiewicz followed through on the demands: In October 2012, the USS George Washington was scheduled to visit Singapore and instead was redirected by the Navy to Port Klang, Malaysia, one of Francis's preferred ports where his company submitted fake contractor bids.
After Francis offered Misiewicz five tickets to a Lady Gaga concert in Bangkok in 2012, Francis wrote: "Don't chicken out bro we need u with us on the front lines," according to court documents.
The US government has suspended its contracts with Francis.
The defendants face up to five years in prison if convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery.
Latest stories in this category:
- North Korea confirms Kim Jong-Un uncle purged
- Accident triggers worker riot in S'pore
- North Korea says leader's uncle sacked for 'criminal' acts
- Drones, Taliban on agenda as Hagel heads to Pakistan
- Dalai Lama not to attend Mandela funeral
- China bans shark fin soup from official receptions
- Teen Ko grabs 1st professional title in Taiwan event
- One month after super typhoon, Philippines faces huge challenges