Plea deals overturned for couple accused of peddling nuclear subsecrets

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A federal judge on Tuesday rejected plea bargains for a marine engineer and his wife who allegedly tried to sell military secrets, saying the prison terms under the agreements were too lenient for a couple accused of providing 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 year-long FBI sting and swashbuckling elements that seemed straight out of a spy novel, including the attempted transfer of confidential underwater data hidden in a sandwich peanut butter, authorities said.

In plea bargains with federal prosecutors — signed earlier this year and initially agreed to by a federal magistrate — the couple admitted to violating the Atomic Energy Act. The agreements provided that Jonathan Toebbe would be sentenced to 12 and a half to 17 and a half years in prison, while his wife would receive a three-year sentence. But the couple withdrew their guilty pleas on Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh, in Martinsburg, W.Va., dismissed the agreements rather than imposing the required sentences.

“It’s not in the best interest of this community or indeed this country to agree to these plea deals,” she said from the bench. “I find no justifiable reason to accept either of these plea deals.”

For nearly an hour before Groh’s surprise ruling, two defense attorneys and an assistant U.S. attorney had argued, unsuccessfully, that the prison terms in the agreements were appropriate.

The 12½ to 17½ range for Jonathan Toebbe is “not a slap on the wrist,” his attorney, Nicholas J. Compton, told the judge. “It’s a significant punishment.” Diana Toebbe’s attorney, Barry P. Beck, said a shorter term suited his client because “she’s not the reason we’re here today.” We are here because her husband had an ill-conceived idea to make money, and she agreed to go with it.

Although she’s had doubts about plea deals in the past, Groh said, “At the end of the day, I generally honor plea deals negotiated by the parties, even when they’re binding. [sentencing] ranges” with which she does not entirely agree. In this case, however, “I find the sentencing options available to me to be surprisingly insufficient,” the judge said.

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

Defense attorneys, who appeared in Groh’s courtroom for sentencing hearings on Tuesday and appeared surprised by his decision, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe had each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to share “restricted data” in violation of the Atomic Energy Act, which carries a life sentence. After withdrawing their pleas, the judge set a joint trial date for mid-January. It is possible that before then, the two parties will negotiate new plea agreements with more acceptable sentences for Groh.

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

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

Authorities said the Toebbes, who have two children, conspired to offer to sell government secrets about US submarine nuclear propulsion systems to an unidentified foreign country. According to court documents, investigators learned of the plot after the country passed the couple’s sales pitch to US counterintelligence officials.

FBI agents posing as representatives of the foreign country quickly launched an undercover operation. Officers said they recorded Toebbe and his wife leaving data cards for their supposed dog handlers at “dead-end” sites within driving distance of their homes. The information was hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich, an adhesive bandage wrapper and a packet of Dentyne gum, authorities said.

In fact, Jonathan Toebbe’s foreign handler was an undercover FBI agent. Emails cited in court documents show that Toebbe came to trust the undercover agent in part because of the money he was paid and because the FBI arranged for ” report” Toebbe from the foreign country’s embassy in Washington over Memorial Day weekend last year. The logs do not describe how the FBI was able to organize 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 provided thousands of pages of documents and his espionage ambitions grew for years.

Referring to the proposed sentence for Jonathan Toebbe, Groh wondered aloud what might happen if he “came out early for good”. [behavior], and the information he still has and has access to is still in step with current technology – and he uses it and provides it to another country that gets an advantage over that country. She said the same thing about Diana Toebbe.

In a victim impact statement filed with the court, Vice Admiral William J. Houston, commander of the U.S. Submarine Forces, said the secrets the couple allegedly tried to sell were “some of the most reliable and reliable information more sensitive on our nuclear-powered fleet. ”

Reading portions of the statement on the bench, Groh said the data represents a “military advantage provided by decades of research and development.” This information could provide foreign navies with the ability to close the capability gap that would take extraordinary effort and resources to restore.

During a hearing shortly after the couple’s arrest in October, an FBI agent said authorities searched the Toebbes’ home and their computers, but found neither the $100,000 in cryptocurrency that the US government had paid the couple, nor thousands of additional pages of secret documents. The FBI says Toebbe stole his job.

It is not known if the cryptocurrency or the documents have since been recovered. The couple’s now-cancelled plea deals had called for them to cooperate with the FBI in its further investigation.

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