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Judge rejects plea deal in submarine secrets case


A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife accused of plotting to sell secrets about American nuclear-powered warships are heading for trial in January after a federal judge threw out the couple’s plea agreements.

U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said in a statement to The Washington Times on Wednesday that prosecutors “will be ready for trial” in the case that allegedly involved a digital memory card hidden in a half-eaten sandwich, among other artful deception tactics.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe of Annapolis, Maryland, had pleaded guilty in February to one count each of conspiracy to communicate restricted data in the case playing out in federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

But the two withdrew their pleas on Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Gina Groh rejected the pleas on grounds they had proposed “strikingly deficient” sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Toebbe, 43, had proposed a range of roughly 12 to 17 years in prison, while Mrs. Toebbe, 46, was facing three years for her role in the case.

“I don’t find any justifiable reasons for accepting either one of these plea agreements,” said Judge Groh.

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Messages left for the lawyers representing the couple were not returned on Wednesday.

The case has rocked one of the more elite and specialized communities within the Navy, where Mr. Toebbe held a Top Secret security clearance as a civilian engineer with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors.

The office is responsible for all aspects of the Navy’s nuclear power program, from design to operation, and Mr. Toebbe had access to what prosecutors say were “militarily sensitive design elements” of Virginia-class submarine reactors.

The Justice Department claims Mr. Toebbe repeatedly sold details about the performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarines to someone he thought was a representative of what court documents identified only as “Country 1.”

In fact, he was communicating with an undercover FBI agent.

Mrs. Toebbe served as a lookout while her husband was leaving sensitive information for the person he believed was a foreign official, the Justice Department said after the now-rejected guilty plea was made in February 2022.

Prosecutors claim the couple’s scheme began in April 2020 when Mr. Toebbe sent a package of classified Navy documents to the foreign government and indicated he had more to offer if the price was right.

After the FBI obtained the package through an attache located in the foreign country, the undercover agent made contact and struck up a relationship, according to the court documents. After several months of negotiations, Mr. Toebbe agreed to sell restricted data in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency, the Justice Department said.

Prosecutors claim he made four “dead drops” at spots in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In one case, he allegedly left a digital memory card inside a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich that contained the performance characteristics of a submarine nuclear reactor.

At a spot in eastern Virginia, Mr. Toebbe left the SD card inside a chewing gum package, according to court documents, which claim a typed message was left at one of the dead drops for the undercover FBI agent saying he was “extremely careful to gather the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my job so nobody would suspect my plan.”  

Prosecutors say the couple received $20,000 worth of cryptocurrency before they were arrested in October 2021.

The Navy sent a victim impact statement that Judge Groh read aloud as she rejected the plea agreements on Tuesday. The statement by Vice Admiral William Houston, commander of the nation’s Atlantic submarine fleet, said the leaks harmed national security and put thousands of lives at risk.

“Mr. Toebbe captured some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear-powered fleet,” Adm. Houston wrote. “A critical component of national defense has been irreparably compromised.”

Judge Groh set a trial date for January 17, 2023, if a new plea agreement is not reached.

The couple could face life in prison if convicted. Although Mr. Toebbe and his wife are from Maryland, the case is being held in West Virginia because that is where the first dead drop was made.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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