Plea agreements disrupted for couple accused of venting nuclear sub-secrets

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A federal judge on Tuesday rejected plea deals for a naval engineer and his wife who allegedly tried to sell military secrets, saying the jail terms demanded by the deals were too lenient for a couple accused of offering US nuclear submarine data to a foreign government.

Jonathan Toebbe, 43, a civil engineer for the Navy, and Diana Toebbe, 46, a private school teacher, lived in Annapolis, Maryland, before being arrested in October in a case involving a years-long FBI stab and cloak-and- dagger elements that appeared to come straight out of a spy novel, including the attempted transfer of confidential undersea data hidden in a peanut butter sandwich, authorities said.

In plea deals with federal prosecutors — signed early this year and initially accepted by a federal magistrate — the couple admitted to violating the Atomic Energy Act. Under the deals, Jonathan Toebbe was to be sentenced to 12½ to 17½ years in prison, while his wife would receive three years. But the couple withdrew their pleas on Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh, in Martinsburg, W.Va., dismissed the agreements instead of imposing the required penalties.

“It is not in the interest of this community or, in fact, this country to accept these advocacy agreements,” she said from the bench. “I don’t see any justification for accepting any of these plea deals.”

Nearly an hour before Groh’s surprise ruling, two attorneys and an assistant US attorney had argued in vain that the jail terms demanded in the deals were appropriate.

The 12½ to 17½ year range for Jonathan Toebbe is “no blow to the wrist,” his attorney, Nicholas J. Compton, told the judge. “It’s a severe punishment.” Diana Toebbe’s attorney, Barry P. Beck, said a shorter term was appropriate for his client because “she is not the reason we are here today. We are here because her husband had a ill-considered idea of ​​making money, and she agreed to go along with it.”

Although she has expressed doubts about plea agreements in the past, Groh said, “Ultimately, I generally respect plea agreements negotiated by the parties, even if they are binding. [sentencing] ranges” with which she does not fully agree. In this case, however, “I find that the punishment options available to me are remarkably flawed,” the judge said.

US Attorney William Ihlenfeld of the Northern District of West Virginia, where the case is being heard, said his office will “go forward” and be “ready” for a trial. “I respect the Court’s decision to reject the plea agreements,” he said in a statement.

Defense lawyers, who appeared in Groh’s courtroom on Tuesday for the sentencing hearings and appeared surprised by her decision, did not immediately respond to messages asking for comment.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe had each pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to share “limited data” in violation of the Atomic Energy Act, which carries a possible life sentence. After they withdrew their pleas, the judge set a joint trial date in mid-January. It’s possible the two sides will negotiate new plea deals before then with phrases Groh more palatable.

Who are the Maryland husband and wife who admitted to trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets?

Jonathan Toebbe, a nuclear engineer with a top-secret security clearance, worked in the Navy’s multi-billion dollar effort to build submarines that can remain submerged and undetected for as long as possible. His wife, a teacher at the private Key School in Annapolis, was known as a conscientious humanities teacher with liberal political views and loved by students. Both come from families with significant military ties.

Authorities said the Toebbes, who have two children, had plans together to sell government secrets about nuclear propulsion systems on US submarines to an unidentified foreign country. According to court documents, investigators learned of the plot after the country forwarded the pair’s sales pitch to US counterintelligence officials.

FBI agents posing as foreign representatives soon launched a covert operation. Officers said they captured Toebbe and his wife leaving data cards for their alleged handlers at “dead drop” locations within driving distance of their home. The information was hidden in a peanut butter sandwich, an adhesive bandage wrapper and a pack of Dentyne gum, authorities said.

Jonathan Toebbe’s foreign handler was an undercover FBI agent. Emails cited in court documents show Toebbe came to trust the undercover cop, in part because of the money he was given and because the FBI had arranged to “signal” Toebbe from the foreign embassy in Washington over Memorial Day weekend last year. The papers do not describe how the FBI was able to arrange such a signal.

In correspondence with his handler, Jonathan Toebbe claimed to have spent years formulating his “spy for hire” plan. In total, officials said, Toebbe supplied thousands of pages of documents and his spying ambitions had been growing for years.

Referring to the suggested sentence for Jonathan Toebbe, Groh wondered aloud what would happen if “he gets out early for good [behavior]and the information he still owns and has access to is still in line with current technology — and he’s using it and providing it to another country that gets an advantage over this country.” about Diana Toebbe.

In a victim statement filed in court, Vice Admiral William J. Houston, commander of the U.S. Submarine Forces, said the secrets the pair allegedly tried to sell “contain some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear-powered fleet.” goods. ”

Reading parts of the bank’s statement, Groh said the data represents a “military advantage afforded by decades of research and development. This information could yield foreign navies.” with the ability to close the capability gap that would require extraordinary efforts and resources to recover.”

In a court hearing shortly after the couple’s arrest in October, an FBI agent testified that authorities searched Toebbe’s home and their computers, but found neither the $100,000 in cryptocurrency that the U.S. government paid the couple, nor thousands. additional pages of classified documents that the FBI says has stolen Toebbe from his job.

It is unclear whether the cryptocurrency or documents have since been recovered. The pair’s now-cancelled plea deals had prompted them to cooperate with the FBI in the ongoing investigation.

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