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Maryland couple pleads guilty, again, to taking money for nuclear secrets  

A former nuclear engineer and his wife saw their first pleas thrown out related to a conspiracy to sell an unspecified foreign government classified submarine information.

MARTINSBURG, W. Va. (CN) — A month after a judge rejected the first proffer from a Maryland couple who tried to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government, the pair entered new guilty pleas Monday to espionage-related charges.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe entered their pleas before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Trumble to one count each of conspiracy to communicate restricted data in violation of the Atomic Energy Act.

An indictment filed last October accused the Annapolis couple of attempting to pass secrets about Virginia-class nuclear submarines that Jonathan learned about from his work as an engineer at the Naval Yard in Washington to a foreign government identified only as Country 1. The Toebbes also faced two counts of communication of restricted data.

In February, the Toebbes agreed to plead guilty to the top count of conspiracy and also to cooperate with the investigators in, not only retrieving all the classified information, but also the $100,000 in Monero cryptocurrency the FBI had paid for it as part of its undercover operation that caught the would-be spies. In exchange, the government recommended Jonathan receive a sentence between 12 1/2 to 17 years in prison, and Diana three.

The government alleged that, after communicating with Country 1 via encrypted email, Jonathan began a conversation with a person he believed to be one of its attachés but who was actually an undercover FBI agent. Between April 2020 and October 2021, Jonathan — with Diana as a lookout — made a series of dead drops of classified data on a SIM card in three predetermined locations in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Federal agents arrested the Toebbes at a park in nearby Jefferson County after the fourth drop in October 2021.

Jonathan Toebbe admitted in his plea that he planned to provide the Country 1 attaché with a total of 51 packets of information in exchange for $5 million in cryptocurrency.

Despite the U.S. Attorney’s Office and defense counsel expressing satisfaction with the deal, U.S. District Judge Gina Groh rejected the first agreement during an Aug. 18 plea hearing, citing the potential harm to national security that the Toebbes caused for nothing more than “selfish and greedy reasons.”

Groh quoted a letter from Vice-Admiral William Houston, commander of the Atlantic Naval Submarine Forces, in which he estimated that that Jonathan’s attempt to leak the classified information to Country 1 put more than 25,000 people at risk.

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

After rejecting the agreement, and hearing the Toebbes formally withdraw their guilty pleas, Groh set a trial date for Jan. 17.

If convicted, the Toebbes faced a possible sentence of life imprisonment and a $100,000 fine.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld declined to comment on the renewed guilty pleas. Nicholas Compton, Jonathan’s federal public defender, and Barry Beck, Diana’s attorney, did not return requests for comment.

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