The sentencing for the former US Navy engineer and his wife accused of offering to sell US nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government was upended after a federal judge rejected their plea deal saying the terms were not harsh enough.
Jonathan Toebbe, 43, a civilian engineer for the Navy, and Diana Toebbe, 46, a private-school teacher, lived in Annapolis, Md., before they were arrested in October in a case involving a year-long FBI sting and cloak-and-dagger elements that seemed straight out of a spy novel, including the attempted transfer of confidential submarine data hidden in a peanut butter sandwich, authorities said.
In plea bargains with federal prosecutors — signed early this year and initially accepted by a federal magistrate — the couple admitted to violating the Atomic Energy Act.
The deals called for Jonathan Toebbe to be sentenced to 12½ to 17½ years in prison, while his wife would get a three-year term but the couple withdrew their guilty pleas Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh, in Martinsburg, W.Va., threw out the agreements rather than impose the required sentences.
“It’s not in the best interest of this community or, in fact, this country to accept these plea agreements,” she said from the bench. “I don’t find any justifiable reason for accepting either one of these plea agreements.”
For nearly an hour before Groh’s surprise ruling, two defense lawyers and an assistant U.S. attorney had argued, to no avail, that the prison terms called for in the deals were appropriate.
The proposed prison term for Jonathan Toebbe is “not a slap on the wrist,” his lawyer, Nicholas J. Compton, told the judge. “It’s significant punishment.”
Diana Toebbe’s attorney, Barry P. Beck, said the shorter term for his client was appropriate because “she’s not why we’re here today. We’re here because her husband had an ill-conceived idea to make money, and she agreed to go along with it.”
In February Jonathan and Diana Toebbe both entered guilty pleas to charges that they attempted to sell restricted data related to the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign government.
The FBI claims the scheme began in April 2020, when Jonathan Toebbe – then a nuclear engineer for the US Navy dealing with nuclear submarine propulsion systems – sent a package of classified documents to a Brazilian military intelligence agency and said he was keen to sell them more military secrets.
FBI investigators installed an undercover agent posing as a representative for Brazil to foil Toebbe’s plot and gather additional evidence.
That set off a month-long undercover operation in which the agent made contact with Toebbe and agreed to pay in cryptocurrency for the information he was offering. Toebbe accepted payments of $100,000 before he was caught.
In one message to the ‘buyers’ Jonathan Toebbe indicated that he had been considering his actions for several years and was happy to work with ‘a reliable professional partner.’
He also wrote that he had divided confidential data he had collected into 51 ‘packages’ of information, and sought $100,000 for each.
Diana was accused of serving as an accomplice and a ‘lookout’ at several prearranged ‘dead-drop’ locations at which her husband deposited memory cards containing government secrets, concealing them in objects such as a chewing gum wrapper and a peanut butter sandwich.
At the time of his arrest, Toebbe was an employee of the Department of the Navy who served as a nuclear engineer and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors.
He held an active national security clearance through the Department of Defense, giving him access to “Restricted Data” within the meaning of the Atomic Energy Act.
Restricted Data concerns design, manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, or production of Special Nuclear Material (SNM), or use of SNM in the production of energy – such as naval reactors.
Toebbe worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to sensitive military design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear-powered warships.
“Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The defendant was entrusted with some of those secrets and instead of guarding them, he betrayed the trust placed in him and conspired to sell them to another country for personal profit.”