WASHINGTON – Lawyers for a Maryland woman charged along with her husband in a scheme to sell Navy submarine secrets to a foreign government denied Wednesday that she had contemplated fleeing the United States to avoid arrest. Instead, they said, contempt for then-President Donald Trump was behind the couple's emigration plans.
Prosecutors at an October hearing had cited messages exchanged by the couple — including one in which Diana Toebbe wrote, “I cannot believe that the two of us wouldn’t be welcomed and rewarded by a foreign govt" — in arguing that the Toebbes had been discussing escaping the U.S. prior to their arrest and were therefore a flight risk if released from custody now.
But Toebbe's defense lawyers say additional messages produced by prosecutors since then make clear that she and her husband were looking to leave the country simply because they were dismayed by Trump.
“Obviously, the additional messages paint an entirely different picture as to why Mrs. Toebbe wanted to leave the country,” wrote Barry Beck, one of her lawyers. “Rather than scheming to escape capture and prosecution for crimes, Mrs. Toebbe was clearly motivated to leave the country for political reasons.”
The Toebbes, of Annapolis, Maryland, have been in jail since their October arrest on espionage-related charges.
Jonathan Toebbe, a Navy nuclear engineer, is accused of passing on design information about sophisticated Virginia-class submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who was actually an undercover FBI agent. Diana Toebbe is accused of serving as a lookout during several of the “dead-drop” exchanges at which sensitive information was deposited. The identity of the country has not been disclosed.
A judge agreed that Diana Toebbe was a flight risk based in part on the messages, and ordered her held as the case moves forward. But defense lawyers asked Wednesday to reopen the detention hearing, citing additional messages recovered from Jonathan Toebbe's phone at the time of his arrest.
The March 7, 2019, messages included in the defense motion show Diana Toebbe venting “that the entire system is rigged” and telling her husband, “We need to get out.”
After Jonathan Toebbe tries to reassure her that special counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russian election interference is due to be released soon, and that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is facing prison time, his wife responds, “It’s been too long. Nothing has changed. He’s still in power.” She adds, “Manafort got a slap on the wrist. It’s a signal that the entire system is rigged."
Elsewhere in the conversation, Diana Toebbe, who at the time of her arrest was teaching at a private school in Maryland, muses that she was willing to travel anywhere, including “to teach in international schools” or “to take (French President Emmanuel) Macron up on his offer to harbor scientific refugees.”
The defense motion also notes that the messages were exchanged more than a year before Jonathan Toebbe is alleged to have first made contact with the unidentified foreign country, which in turn alerted the FBI.
“Thus, to the extent the messages that were introduced at her original detention hearing suggested that she was engaged in illegal activity, the newly disclosed messages dispel that implication entirely,” Beck wrote, adding that the reason for her wanting to leave the country no longer exists since Trump lost his reelection bid.
Defense lawyers also said, “Mrs. Toebbe has reason to believe that her husband has also informed the Government that she was not involved in his alleged scheme to sell classified information.”
Prosecutors have until later this month to respond to the defense motion.
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