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Judge rejects plea deal for Maryland couple accused of espionage

The agreement called for Jonathan Toebbe to receive between 12 ½ to 17 years in prison, and three years for Diana Toebbe.

MARTINSBURG, W. Va. (CN) — Citing the thousands of lives they put at risk for nothing more than greed, a federal judge Tuesday rejected a plea deal for a Maryland couple accused of passing nuclear secrets to a foreign government.

Jonathan Toebbe, 43, and his wife Diana Toebbe, 46, in February agreed to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to communicate restricted data in violation of the Atomic Energy Act.  In accepting the plea, the Toebbes admitted to their roles in a scheme that began in April 2020 to pass secrets on the propulsion of Virginia-class nuclear submarines Jonathan Toebbe had access to as engineer at the Naval Yard in Washington, D.C. to a foreign government identified only as Country 1.

After communicating with Country 1 via encrypted email, Jonathan Toebbe began a conversation with a person he believed to be an attache with Country 1, but instead was an undercover FBI agent.  Between April 2020 and October 2021, Jonathan Toebbe, with his wife as a lookout, made a series of dead-drops of classified data on a SIM card in three pre-determined locations in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Federal agents arrested the Toebbes at a park in nearby Jefferson County following a fourth drop during the Columbus Day weekend.

The agreement called for Jonathan Toebbe to receive between 12 ½ to 17 years incarceration for his role in the conspiracy, and Diana Toebbe three years for hers.

Though admitting the offer was far below the upper level in the sentencing guidelines, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared J. Douglas said the government was pleased since Jonathan Toebbe was “very cooperative” in detailing the data he stole. Nicholas Compton, Jonathan Toebbe's public defender, said that his client now has a black mark for future employment and not only has a felony conviction, but will also never be able to have access to classified information.

Barry Beck, Diana Toebbe ’s attorney, added that being labeled a “spy” will be a “scarlet letter” for her.

After a nearly 40-minute recess, U.S. District Judge Gina Groh said given the potential harm the Toebbes caused for nothing more than “selfish and greedy reasons," she was rejecting the agreement.

"Counsel, it's not in the best interest of this community or, in fact, this country to accept these plea agreements,” Groh said. “Therefore, I'm rejecting them. I don't find any justifiable reasons for accepting either one of these plea agreements." 

In rejecting the agreement, Groh read aloud portions of a victim impact statement submitted by Vice-Admiral William Houston, commander of the Atlantic Naval Submarine Forces.  In the letter, Houston said the information Johathan Toebbe attempted to leak to Country 1 not only “irreparably harmed” national security, but also put 25,000 lives “at greater risk than before.”

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

Prior to concluding the hearing, Groh set a trial date for Jan. 17, provided a new plea agreement is not reached.  If convicted, the Toebbes face life in prison.

They remain incarcerated at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg.

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