Nearly four decades after fleeing Cambodia as a child, a tearful Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz returned to his home country in December 2010 on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer he commanded.
After dropping anchor off the coast of Sihanoukville, he embraced long-lost relatives as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” played over loudspeakers.
It was a hero’s welcome for Mr. Misiewicz, a man who had become a symbol of the American dream.
“America is truly the land of opportunity. It’s the one country on Earth where you start from the rice fields of a war-torn country and rise to command a U.S. Navy destroyer. It doesn’t get any better,” he said at the time.
Mr. Misiewicz’s fall from grace has been equally dramatic.
On Thursday, the 48-year-old U.S. Navy commander pled guilty to bribery charges as part of a plea deal struck more than two years after he was charged, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mr. Misiewicz admitted to accepting bribes including cash, prostitutes and other gifts in exchange for handing over U.S. Navy secrets, the statement said.
Between January 2011 and September 2013, according to confessions made as part of the plea bargain that are cited in the statement, Mr. Misiewicz passed on classified ship schedules that contained information related to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific ballistic-missile defense operations to Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian CEO of a Singapore-based company that caters to navy ships and submarines docking at ports in the region.
Mr. Francis—better known by the nickname “Fat Leonard”—allegedly used the information to secure Navy contracts worth millions of dollars.
In return, Mr. Francis showered the naval commander with gifts including prostitutes, tickets to a Lady Gaga concert and designer handbags, according to the Justice Department.
“In return, Misiewicz admitted that Francis gave him cash, paid for luxury travel on at least eight occasions for Misiewicz and his family, provided his wife with a designer handbag and provided Misiewicz with the services of prostitutes on multiple occasions,” the statement said.
“Throughout the conspiracy, Misiewicz admitted that he and his conspirators took steps to avoid detection by law enforcement by, among other means, using clandestine email accounts, which they periodically deleted,” it said.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Honolulu declined to comment on the case when contacted on Friday.
Born Khem Vannak in Kandal province in the mid-1960s, Mr. Misiewicz fled war-torn Cambodia in 1973 after being adopted by Maryna Lee Misiewicz, a U.S. Army veteran and stenographer at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh who had her apartment cleaned by the young boy’s aunt. Mr. Misiewicz has said that his father and two sisters were left behind and died under the Khmer Rouge.
Upon arriving in the U.S., Mr. Misiewicz settled in rural Illinois and was the only non-white in Lanark, a town with a population of just 1,500.
In 1985, he enrolled at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
He then embarked on an impressive ascent through the Navy’s ranks, becoming commander of the USS Mustin and eventually the deputy director of operations for the Seventh Fleet.
It was aboard the USS Mustin that Mr. Misiewicz made his internationally publicized return to Cambodia in 2010.
During the trip, Mr. Misiewicz distributed supplies at orphanages and paid a visit to a center run by anti-human trafficking activist Somaly Mam, who resigned as president of the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2014 after media reports revealed that she had fabricated parts of her backstory and coached young girls to lie about their past in order to raise funds.
However, Mr. Misiewicz’s golden image was shattered in September 2013 when he was arrested and charged with the crimes relating to his dealings with Glenn Davis Marine Asia Ltd., the company controlled by Mr. Francis.
“Commander Misiewicz provided information to a foreign contractor that, in the wrong hands, could’ve had a devastating impact on national security,” Laura Duffy, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, is quoted as saying in the Justice Department statement.
“By giving in to greed, he put his Navy shipmates and fellow Americans in harm’s way.”
The sentencing of Mr. Misiewicz is scheduled for April 29.