Judge rejects plea deals for couple in undersea espionage case

WASHINGTON — A federal judge Tuesday rejected plea deals for a Maryland couple who had tried to sell submarine secrets to a foreign country, saying the jail term for one of the defendants was less than some low-cost drug dealers get.

The couple, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, originally pleaded guilty in February to charges of participating in a conspiracy to sell undersea secrets. Their plot began to unravel almost as soon as they set it in motion, when Brazilian intelligence officials handed over a letter to the FBI that the couple wrote anonymously in 2020, offering to sell nuclear secrets. The revelation started a lengthy effort to uncover the couple’s identities and uncover the secrets they had stolen.

Mr. Toebbe had agreed to a deal that would send him to prison for 12 years, while Ms. Toebbe agreed to serve three years, which would likely have released her within two years.

The judge’s decision forced the Toebbes to withdraw their pleas, and Judge Gina M. Groh of the Federal Court for the Northern District of West Virginia set a trial date for January. Lawyers will now have to see if they can reach a new plea deal that Judge Groh could accept or continue.

In her comments, Judge Groh suggested she would only accept a deal within sentencing guidelines. That probably means that both Mr. and Mrs. Toebbe face more than 15 years in prison. Such a long sentence could lead Ms. Toebbe to go to trial to see if a jury would acquit her.

The case interested many. It combined the craft of spy books the couple tried to use, memory cards hidden in peanut butter sandwiches, gum wrappers and plaster boxes, with the stresses of suburban life, such as frenetic searches for babysitters so they could have a chance.

Credit…West Virginia Regional Jail and Jail, via Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

But the case also raised questions about why a couple living a comfortable life in a middle-class neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland, would risk anything to sell secrets to a foreign government. In court, a lawyer for Ms Toebbe referred to personal difficulties she had to grapple with without elaborate.

Even as the hearing began on Tuesday, Judge Groh expressed skepticism about the plea deals, suggesting that the agreement would release Ms Toebbe way too soon.

Judge Groh said Ms Toebbe’s crime made her “a criminal of the worst kind, which is why the 36 months worries me”.

“There are lower level drug dealers who are in prison for much longer than 36 months,” the judge said.

Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys argued that the deals agreed were fair. In Mrs Toebbe’s case, she would never be able to work as a teacher and would be separated from her children for a long time.

“She will be someone who will live the rest of her life with this scarlet letter on her,” said Barry P. Beck, an attorney for Ms. Toebbe.

Prosecutors noted that Mr. Toebbe, who was trained in both nuclear propulsion and secret data handling, bore most of the responsibility. But they added that he had cooperated with the Navy’s efforts to conduct a damage assessment and that the information he had passed was classified only as confidential, not classified or top secret.

“His collaboration after the plea was substantial, very substantial,” said Jarod J. Douglas, an assistant attorney in the United States. “It was critical to a greater assessment of the defendants’ conduct that we may never have known. Without his cooperation, the Navy would never have known what his behavior was and what its scope was.”

But Judge Groh was not convinced. After a pause, she read from an impact statement submitted by Vice Admiral William Houston of the Navy outlining the damage the Toebbes had done to the submarine fleet and national security.

“The nation has spent billions of dollars developing nuclear propulsion technology for the navy,” Judge Groh said, reading the statement. “Mr. Toebbe’s actions have compromised the integrity of this proprietary information, undermining the military advantage of decades of research and development.”

The information Mr. Toebbe stole from the Navy, the statement said, could give foreign navies the opportunity to close the gap with the United States, something that would take extraordinary efforts and resources to recover.

After the hearing, Edward B. MacMahon, an attorney for Ms. Toebbe, said the defense would get back to work on the case.

“We thought this plea was a fair settlement of the case and are disappointed that the judge has not accepted it,” said Mr MacMahon.

Evidence presented earlier in the trial showed that Mr Toebbe struggled with questions about which country to approach, while Ms Toebbe was less scrupulous.

Mrs. Toebbe, a high school teacher with a Ph.D. in archeology, had been highly critical of President Donald J. Trump and had openly pondered leaving the United States, former students said. But defense attorneys for Ms. Toebbe noted that a distaste for Mr. Trump or the state of American politics was not uncommon.

The US government has never acknowledged which country the couple approached, as it has tried to keep many details – including how Mr. Toebbe stole secrets from the US Navy Yard in Washington – from the trial file.

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