Uri Bram: I'm delighted to be here today with Tom Wright, the Co-Founder of Project Brazen, author of Billion Dollar Whale, and the creator of the new and really amazing podcast, Fat Leonard. Tom, thanks so much for coming on.
Tom Wright: Thanks for having me.
Uri Bram: We’re going to play a game The Last Word, where I ask smart, interesting people to answer questions in a scarily specific number of words.
Tom, to get us started, could you tell us in exactly 10 words about your podcast Fat Leonard?
Tom Wright: Fat Leonard is about a contractor who steals billions, exclamation mark.
Uri Bram: That's fantastic. I have 10 words. Can you tell us a little bit more, in as many words as your heart desires?
Tom Wright: So Fat Leonard is about a US Military contractor, he's actually Malaysian but he works for the US Navy. And he is just an unbelievable character, you couldn't make this guy up if you tried. From the 1980s he started to do work for the US Navy; food, fuel and security for them.
Basically, when a navy ship would come into port in Asia, in the Pacific, he would provision them with those things. And he was very good at his job. And after September 11th, when there was this fear of Al-Qaeda attacks on boats, he made even more money. Defense spending went crazy. He was instrumental in protecting the ships with something called the Ring of Steel that he would build around them.
But at the same time, he was also incredibly corrupt. He was paying for prostitutes and orgies for navy officers, all the way up to admirals. He was paying for parties, for gifts for their wives, Chanel handbags, Gucci handbags, Cohiba Cigars, $30,000 dinners.
And then, in return, the navy officers who he corrupted would make sure that the ships came to the ports that he controlled, where he could charge more. And there's no better symbol for the War on Terror, than Leonard. He was living in a $130-million mansion here in Singapore where I live. He had 20 cars, Rolls-Royces, militarized Hummers, all because he did US Navy contracting. So, he's just an incredible character.
Uri Bram: The corruption angle, and this understanding of how these large institutions really work, absolutely blew my mind. Can you say a little bit about the Ring of Steel around the ship? I remember that specifically, it was a very vivid illustration.
Tom Wright: Well, the Ring of Steel is what he called steel barges. If you remember -- actually most people don't remember -- but in 2000, there was an attack on the USS Cole that was anchored in Yemen's harbor. This is about a year before September 11th: two Al-Qaeda operatives rammed a boat full of explosives, and it blew up a hull, and I think 17 soldiers or sailors were killed in that.
And there was an attack on the embassy in Nairobi as well, around that time. And the navy became extremely worried about those kinds of attacks. Now, the job that Leonard did was called husbanding, he was a husbanding agent. And in most of the world the business has been done in a very sort of mom-and-pop type fashion up until Leonard. I mean, if it was a home port in America or Subic Bay in the Philippines, which was an American port for years, that was fine.
But then Subic Bay shut in the early 90s, and Leonard capitalized on that. And he realized that they don't want to be dealing with mom-and-pop operators anymore, you know, throwing ladders over the edges of aircraft carriers and climbing down into fishing boats and all of this.
So Leonard starts to set up these much more professional operations, proper piers, the Ring of Steel, and he was the only person really able to offer this Ring of Steel. These were huge barges that would be anchored down, on the sea side of boats, to stop another Al-Qaeda attack happening.
And then, because he's a monopoly, he starts to charge millions of dollars each time somebody wants theRing of Steel. And in episode two of our nine-part podcast, you see this Wolf of Wall Street-like rise of Leonard. You’re almost willing for him to do well, because he's such a smart guy, right?
Uri Bram: Yes, absolutely. Something really incredible about your show is the way that, early on, Leonard’s charm just really shines through. There's this real rapport and charisma, and you can see this person and how they bring you in.
I was wondering if you could tell us how that develops, in exactly five words, and the dark sides of it as well.
Tom Wright: [counting] “He conned me, then I wised up.”
That's six words. He conned me, I wised-up. Wise-up is one word or two?
Uri Bram: Ahahah sure, wise-up as a dual word, I’ll allow it.
Can you tell us more about that?
Tom Wright: Well, I think I was conned by him. You will be too, if you listen to him. He is a con artist, and he's incredibly charming.
He's Malaysian, but he sounds like an American -- I mean, occasionally he mispronounces a word, but he does sound like an American. And that was one reason he was so successful: he'd wear Stars and Stripes neckties and play Lee Greenwood's “God Bless America” on his cell phone, and eat Sloppy Joe and root for baseball teams in America, all that kind of stuff.
And so people really liked him, and he'd go to the American Day celebrations, July 4th celebrations, and he’d pay big, big contributions to the American Society here in Singapore.
And so, you can be lulled by Leonard. We should say: Leonard is in detention, in America, he was arrested in 2013, he pled guilty in 2015, but he got sick of waiting around, and he thinks there's been a cover-up in the Navy whereby the senior admirals didn't get charged when he's been sitting around waiting to get sentenced. And so he was willing to talk, and we smuggled microphones into his home detention -- he’s no longer in a high security jail, so we smuggled him a microphone.
And I'd spend all these hours talking to him, middle of the day in Singapore, late at night in San Diego where he is, and he would tell me his life story. And I did become charmed by him. He has a very sad childhood, which you'll learn about if you listen to the podcast – a very abusive father, which really set the foundations for the rest of his life, but then he sort of rises up from this beginning, and creates this amazing business, and does things like the Ring of Steel, and if you're listening to this podcast or if you're me talking to him during these interviews, you kind of want him to do well.
But as I said, and tried to say in five words, at one point I learned a lot of things about him that made me realize that my earlier views of him were misguided, basically.
Uri Bram: Yeah, I think the development of that over the course of the series really made me question myself just even as a listener.
I guess a question I want to ask you specifically is, you seem like someone who could get along with anyone, who seems very good at just talking to people, getting people to open up, and I wanted to ask how was your experience of that with Leonard? Was the fact that you wanted him to feel open, was that part of what was going on in the dynamic between you?
Tom Wright: Yeah, I mean, as a journalist you're always trying to be, I guess, non-judgmental – I think if you are judgmental as a human being people clam up, they don't talk to you. I mean, some people would say never trust a journalist, and there's some truth in that too, but his reasons for talking were manifold; one was that,, as I said, he thinks there’s been a cover-up, and he wanted to get his side of the story out. Another one is, he's got kidney cancer and I think it's quite late stage, I'm not sure how long he has to live. He’s on heavy medications and so I think he was throwing caution to the wind there.
But yeah, I just started with an open mind, and actually trying to learn about the story. And obviously, while I was talking to him, I was doing a lot of my own research into him, and into the whole story as well -- we're not stenographers, we're not just going to write down whatever Leonard said. Obviously he's an admitted criminal anyway, and a con artist, so you had to be very careful with all of that.
So, yeah, I did like him at one point, but then as I alluded to... I don't want to sort of front run the show for people who haven't listened to it, but there were some personal cruelties to women in his life, and to another woman called Marcy Misiewicz, who was a navy commander's wife, and the way that he treats women and the misogyny that runs through this whole story is shocking. And that really colored my relationship with him.
But I actually had to hold all that in, because I was still conducting interviews with him, and needed him to play ball. And then at the very end of our interaction, which was in August, I challenged him on a lot of these things, and that was the last time we talked, but we got the tape we needed, and his reactions to it are very, very telling.
Uri Bram: Yeah, I'm really glad you got to say that to him. Glad someone got to say that to him.
Tom Wright: Well, when I call him a misogynist, I mean, he was shocked by that, right? And at one point he says something like “I don't see why you're worried about hookers, the Department of Justice is not worried about hookers,” and we're talking about the mother of his children, so it’s a shocking episode.
Uri Bram: Yeah, absolutely. That one really stands out.
I realize as we're talking about this, that for people who haven't heard the show, it's probably overwhelming how much there is in it: there’s a thrilling drama and an important geopolitical investigation and there's this really human story in this almost tragic-theatre-like historical vein. And I just realized we're talking about this casually as if, oh of course, there's a story about Navy corruption that also ties into human frailty and these major themes of society.
Tom Wright: Well, if we want to go take a 10,000-foot view to give people a bit more context of this, in episode three, we make it about this big sexual assault scandal in the Navy back in the early 1990s called Tailhook. And the reason we do that is that I think one of the binding elements of this – of the nine the whole story apart from Leonard's life and how do you go from being a Malaysian guy to being one of the richest military contractors in the world to the US military, there's also this binding element of the misogyny that's prevalent in the US military and still is today.
We hear a lot about Me Too in the corporate world but I think they're so far behind in the Navy based on my research for this podcast.
Back in the early 90s, when Leonard is first starting his business up, the first Gulf War happens -- Operation Desert Storm and all the ships are coming through Malaysia on the way across the Pacific going into the Middle East and he's starting to do this husbanding work, supplying them as they're going in. Back then, women hadn't really ever played a role in a war fighting role until that point, until that war. And they were allowed in and it caused a lot of grumbling by men and then after the war they had this big conference in Las Vegas for the aviators, naval aviators and the top guns.
And a bunch of women who were there and some of whom had taken part in the first Gulf War were sexually assaulted in this Las Vegas hotel. And the whistleblower, Paula Coughlin, is the star of that episode for us. And she sort of really helped to set the scene about what was it about the Navy and the misogyny that allowed for the rise of somebody like Leonard.
Because Leonard's real success in the Navy was putting on orgies for Navy officers. He did a good job with the Ring of Steel that we've just talked about, but he also organized these orgies over and over and over again and I think that was why he lasted for so long, even though he was overcharging such crazy amounts for his services.
Because it wasn't anybody's money, it was all war money, huge defense budgets. He was doing a good job with the Ring of Steel and everyone was getting laid. And so this thing rolled on forever. And the losers in all of this are the Navy spouses, the mother of Leonard’s own children, and Paula Coughlin – so I think that gives a sort of higher level view of what it's all about.
Uri Bram: Absolutely.
You’ve now mentioned Paula and Marcy, who are two people who have stood up to these systems in different ways. And I was wanting to talk a little bit about that, about what you've learned and seen about the way that some people do end up willing to challenge these entrenched, corrupt, misogynistic systems.
Tom Wright: I think one thing I really like about Fat Leonard is that…. it's all grey. We just started off by discussing Leonard -- is he evil? Is he? He's got some evil sides to him but he's also somebody I was charmed by, right?
And I think the other thing that's great is the heroes in this show, they're not black and white, they're real people. And one of them is Marcy Misiewicz, she's a very smart woman from the Midwest, from rural Illinois, and she became a navy spouse.
Her husband Michael Misiewicz has got this fascinating story – it’s too long to get into here but he grew up in the Killing Fields in Cambodia, escaped as a kid, became a commander of a US Navy ship. And he's lured into Leonard's web, again with prostitutes and with trips to see his family, paid vacations, all this kind of thing.
And Marcy is jilted by him. She knows – she sort of figures out he's cheating on her and she's furious and he ends up hitting her and he's sent to live on a boat, but the Navy don't really protect her properly. And she ends up going to the NCIS with all of her suspicions about her husband's connections to Leonard.
And again, not to spoil the show, but she plays a key role in the end game of this whole story because for years people have been complaining about Leonard's costs to the NCIS. Obviously NCIS is famous because of its CBS television show, in which they're the naval investigators. They're supposed to stop corruption and crime inside the Navy. But for years nothing happens because Leonard has bought everyone off and everyone's enjoying all of this stuff and he's doing a pretty good job on the Ring of Steel and all that. And then he corrupts an NCIS officer, actually corrupts one of the top NCIS officers in the world. This guy's a head of the Quantico office.
And so he knows when there are investigations going into him and he knows about Marcy's cooperation and all of this. So this is an unbelievable thing -- this is episode eight that came out quite recently and that's really the end game and the role of Marcy and all of that is fascinating.
Uri Bram: Amazing. Well, I feel like this conversation has really highlighted all of the things that I love about the podcast, but obviously the podcast has so much more as well, because hearing the real voices and just the way you construct the show, I’m just a really big fan.
Since this is The Last Word, could you leave us with one word that you'd like our audience to take away with them?
Tom Wright: I'm going to say serendipitous. And the reason that's my last word is I felt very lucky to get this story. If you're a journalist, it's very hard to come across amazing stories to tell.
I co-wrote a book with Bradley Hope called Billion Dollar Whale about what we think is one of the largest financial scams in history, which was Jho Low's scamming of the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and the money that went into make The Wolf of Wall Street and to pay for stuff for Leonardo DiCaprio and Miranda Kerr and all of that.
And because of doing that book, I actually got to know somebody who then put me in touch with Leonard. Leonard, it turns out, is from the same island in Malaysia, Penang Island, that Jho Low is from. And so he put me in touch with Leonard and as I said we've got a microphone to him. We just started doing all this recording. And so, yeah, serendipitous.
Uri Bram: Yeah, that's wild. I can't get over the fact that the story could have just never been told -- as in, it seems like if you hadn't told it now, it just would have not come out.
Tom Wright: Well, the Washington Post reported it. They did a pretty good job with covering the indictments. But one of the problems is Leonard never talked and the Navy really never talked, so you couldn't really get a human voice to it or really find out what happened.
Marcy Misiewicz has only recently decided to talk to me. She turned down all other requests. Sometimes that's just because time passes and people stop climbing up and they're willing to talk, once they've got over the shock of things, like their husband getting arrested and jailed. And part of it is just you need to have Leonard talking, otherwise you couldn't really find out what was going on. And that's also partly because the Navy doesn't want a lot of this information getting out there because they've protected a lot of the senior admirals in the investigations.
Uri Bram: It is unreal.
Could you say a few words about Project Brazen more generally? Fat Leonard feels like a representative part of a bigger project that you and Bradley are working on.
Tom Wright: Yes. So Bradley and I wrote Billion Dollar Whale together, we were colleagues at the Wall Street Journal for many years. And so we set up Project Brazen earlier this year and we're doing books, podcasts, articles, documentaries, TV, films. And what we're doing is trying to tell the best true stories, but on a global scale.
And what we saw as a niche for us was both to do it globally and to do stories that are happening right now, rather than historical stories because we think that’s most interesting. Leonard's happening right now, he hasn't even been sentenced and he's talking to us.
Bradley's working on a book about Korean-Americans who tried to bring down the North Korean government with the help of the CIA. And they're now on the run, those guys. And so there's a built-in interest from audiences. We think if things are sort of still bubbling, happening in real time, straight from the headlines, that’s always interesting.
And then we're trying to also do stories which we think have quite high stakes -- it’s like with the 2 trillion spent in Afghanistan for nothing really, and then they pull out – Fat Leonard tells a similar story and the stakes are quite high, you can see why people would be interested. So those are the kind of things we're focusing on.
And we see a huge opportunity because there's so much demand for content these days. And if you go outside of the US, the market's a little less crowded. I'm based in Singapore, Bradley's in London, so that's what we're focusing on.
Uri Bram: Well, it's certainly working. Tom, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you. Can you just tell us where to find the podcast and where to find your work online?