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Judge rejects plea deals for couple accused of selling nuclear submarine secrets

A federal judge rejected plea deals for a couple accused of attempting to sell the secrets of America’s nuclear submarine fleet, saying the proposed penalty was too light for the damage that could have been inflicted.

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh of the Northern District of West Virginia started and ended what would have been a sentencing hearing in Martinsburg by expressing major reservations about a proposed penalty.

“It’s not in the best interest of this community or this country to accept these plea agreements. Therefore, I’m rejecting them as presented to me,” Groh said today.

Before her were Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, accused of working together to place information about America’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered vessels on memory cards, taking them to drop points hidden in mundane disguises like sandwiches or gum wrappers and asking for infusions of cryptocurrency from agents they believed represented a foreign power.

Jonathan Toebbe was accused 0f gathering, formatting and attempting to sell the sophisticated secrets and faced the possibility of more than 17 years incarceration under the plea agreement that wound up being rejected. His wife, who stood as a lookout, faced three years.

Not enough, said the judge.

“Make no mistake, these defendants have been charged with very serious crimes. And as you all know, sometimes I may question counsel about whether or not I should accept a plea. And I listen to your arguments. But in the end, I generally honor plea agreements negotiated by the parties when they have binding ranges,” Groh told the court Tuesday afternoon.

“But I find the sentencing options for the court in this case that are available to me strikingly deficient.”

Judge Groh wound up giving prosecutors and defendants a few choices: let the judge proceed with a sentence that she would find appropriate or withdraw from the plea agreements and set a trial date.

The defendants agreed to move toward trial, and the judge set a Jan. 17 date. The defendants and prosecutors still could discuss a revised plea deal in the mean time.

The couple was accused of selling  restricted data about the design of nuclear submarines to a contact they believed was a representative of a foreign power. Instead, it was an FBI agent.

Diana and Jonathan Toebbe, pictured in this Instagram photo, were arrested Oct. 9, 2021 in Jefferson County.

Jonathan Toebbe, 43, pleaded guilty on Feb. 14 to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. Other charges were dropped because of the plea agreement. Toebbe had faced as long as life in prison but, by pleading, assured he would only serve 12.5 to 17.5 years.

Four days after that plea, Diana Toebbe, 46, acknowledged guilty of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. That plea meant she faced up to three years in prison.

Today, both prosecutors and the couple’s defense attorneys contended the proposed plea was appropriate.

Jonathan Toebbe had cooperated, the lawyers said, by providing detailed information about his scheme, including how to access encrypted messages he had used. He faced not only years in jail but also the loss of livelihood from his relinquished federal clearance.

But the judge countered the penalty fell short “given the background of the party’s motivation, his trusted employment position and threats to national and global security and service personnel alone that his actions caused.”

Diana Toebbe’s proposed sentence of just a few years in jail was appropriate, the lawyers had contended, because her lack of expertise would prevent her from having any way of repeating the scheme. And her participation only went as far as watching over the dropoffs while she stood with her arms folded, the lawyers said.

The judge didn’t buy that.

“That could have easily caused great harm to the Navy, the United States, servicemen, and even the world,” Judge Groh said. “These are tough times, we’re in.”

The Toebbes are both from Annapolis, Md., but their charges flowed through federal court in the Northern District of West Virginia because of the location of a drop point in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

Jonathan Toebbe was a nuclear engineer for the Department of the Navy, assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. He had an active top secret/sensitive compartmented information security clearance through the federal government.

Diana Toebbe is accused of being his lookout for a series of dead drops of information. In exchange, the Toebbes had proposed receiving 51 packages totaling $5 million in cryptocurrency.

The first West Virginia incident occurred June 26, 2021, when Diana was the lookout for Jonathan for an exchange in Jefferson County. Investigators said when Jonathan Toebbe dropped off a computer memory card, it was placed inside a peanut butter sandwich.

The memory card also contained a typed message that included statements, “I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided,” and “I want our relationship to be very successful for us both.”

Another drop off in Jefferson County occurred Oct. 9. 2021, when Toebbe left another memory card in a chewing gum package. Diana Toebbe again acted as a lookout.

Their activity began in 2020 when the Toebbes reached out to a foreign country offering to sell U.S. submarine nuclear propulsion secrets. The foreign country remains unnamed, but its representatives turned the information over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Toebbes unknowingly worked with undercover FBI agents until they were arrested. The information in their possession was classified as confidential, according to court filings.

“Mr. Toebbe abused a position of public trust and used a special skill in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission and concealment of the offense,” according to a summary of the plea agreement.

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