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Navy engineer sentenced in submarine spy case to 19 years prison; wife to 22

A file photo dated Dec. 15, 2016, of the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) departs Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for sea trials. (Thiep Van Nguyen II/U.S. Navy/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 10, 2022

A U.S. Navy engineer and his wife have been sentenced to more than 19 years and 22 years respectively for their efforts to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government.

West Virginia federal Judge Gina Groh sentenced Jonathan Toebbe on Wednesday to 232 months in prison, or about 19 and a third years, for conspiracy to conspiracy to communicate restricted data to a foreign government. The judge also sentenced his wife and coconspirator Diana Toebbe, to 262 months in prison or about 21.8 years for the same offense.

Jonathan Toebbe was an employee of the Department of the Navy who worked as a nuclear engineer and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program where he had an active national security clearance. Jonathan and Toebbe were arrested in October of last year in a federal sting operation after attempting to pass off classified information to someone they believed was an agent of a foreign government.

The U.S. Department o Justice did not specify which foreign government the married couple had attempted to transmit the classified information to, but allege the efforts started in April of 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package to a foreign government containing a sample of restricted data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional restricted data.

According to the criminal complaint, the sample package contained a letter that stated, “I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

The package was subsequently obtained by an FBI attache in the foreign country in December of 2020. It is unclear from the complaint how the FBI came into possession of the package.

From that point on, Toebbe continued the communication effort with someone they believed was an agent of the foreign government but who was actually working for U.S. investigators. During this time, the couple received multiple cryptocurrency payments in exchange for their efforts to pass on classified information.

The couple plead guilty to the same charges in February of this year, but Judge Groh rejected their initial plea arrangements in August.

Groh said at the time that she generally honors plea agreements, but felt the agreement “strikingly deficient” in this case due to its national security implications, the Associated Press reported.

In their effort to gain leniency, the couple and their lawyers described how they struggled with mental health issues and alcohol. Their lawyers also argued that the couple’s talk of fleeing the U.S. during the time period that this conspiracy took place was because of their contempt for then-President Donald Trump and not any specific effort to evade arrest.

Groh said in August that the couple had acted “for selfish and greedy reasons, but could have caused great harm” to the U.S. Navy with the secrets they traded. The couple ultimately took $100,000 in cryptocurrency payments during the course of the conspiracy.

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

On Wednesday, Groh said the conspiracy “reads like a crime novel or a movie script” and that Jonathan Toebbe’s “actions and greedy self-serving intentions placed military service members at sea and every citizen of this country in a vulnerable position and at risk of harm from adversaries.”

Before the sentencing, Jonathan said “I believed that my family was in dire threat, that democracy itself was under collapse,” and that he took a “precipitous action to try to save them from grave harm.”

Diane also said her decision to go along in the scheme was “catastrophic” for her and her family.

“I didn’t think of my children, who have suffered the most,” she said. “Their lives will forever be marked by the decision that I made.” She also said she should have talked her husband out of the scheme.

Diane ultimately received a larger sentence than her husband after she tried to send her husband two letters from jail. Groh read those letters in court during the sentencing hearing. In the letters, she encouraged her Jonathan to deny her involvement in the scheme and say she “didn’t know anything about any of this.” In one letter, Diane asked her husband to flush the letter down the toilet after reading it.

Groh said Diane showed she lacked genuine remorse and didn’t take responsibility for her actions.

Groh also admonished Diane’s lawyer, Barry Beck, for seeking a lesser sentence by claiming she was just an accomplice.

“Your client put this country in great danger,” Groh told Beck. “No matter what you call it, the harm to this nation was great.”