Lawyers for a woman who was arrested with her formal Naval engineer husband on espionage-related charges have argued that her desire to leave the US was not based on fear of arrest but because of Donald Trump and a right-wing political landscape.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from an alleged year-long scheme in which the FBI posed as foreign officials to exchange encrypted messages with Mr Toebbe to negotiate “dead-drop” locations and send $100,000 in US dollars in the Monero cryptocurrency in exchange for memory cards with top-secret nuclear submarine plans.
An indictment accuses the Maryland couple of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and two counts of communication of restricted data. They have remained in jail pending trial.
A judge determined that Diana Toebbe poses a flight risk, pointing to prosecutors’ argument that text messages between the couple in 2019 and 2020 showed her interest in leaving the US. The messages were sent months before communications between Mr Toebbe and FBI agents began.
“For some reason, the selected messages that the government relied upon at the detention hearing did not include the additional messages between Mrs Toebbe and her husband in which she explained the actual reason that she wanted to leave the country; that is, her distaste for Donald Trump and not because they were going to flee and avoid charges,” attorneys for Ms Toebbe argued in US District Court filings on 8 December.
“As a result, the selected messages had the effect of making it appear that they were discussing fleeing for reasons other than politics,” they wrote. “Rather than scheming to escape capture and prosecution for crimes, Mrs Toebbe was clearly motivated to leave the country for political reasons. Specifically, the additional messages show that Mrs Toebbe, like many politically left-leaning individuals at the time, was intensely upset with the direction of the country under the former president.”
Ms Toebbe’s attorneys have sought a new detention hearing, and have indicated that her father is willing to post a cash bond for her release pending trial and to “reunite with her minor children who are presently in the custody of family in California.”
The filing includes dozens of text messages, some of which were not previously disclosed to the defence, according to attorneys. Several discuss Trump administration figures, the 2020 presidential election and FBI special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Mr Trump’s campaign.
On 4 March 2019, Dianna Toebbe wrote: “I worry that s*** is falling down. If we could expat to France or something…”
“I’m not saying we need to flee now for safety,” Jonathan Toebbe replied, according to the filing. “We need to find a way to retire on a boat and cruise the world before we’re too old to enjoy it.”
A few days later, on 7 March 2019, Ms Toebbe wrote: “We need to get out.”
“Where? To do what?” Mr Toebbe replied, according to the court documents.
“To anywhere. To do something else,” she said, documents show. “To teach in international schools… to take Macron up on his offer to harbor scientific refugees.”
“Biden/Warren will curb stomp Trump/Pence,” Mr Toebbe replied, according to the filing.
“WE NEED TO GET OUT,” she replied, documents show. “Hilary was going to curb stomp trump. I’m done.”
Mr Toebbe also mentioned Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s former campaign chair, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiracy and was convicted on several other charges in a separate case. He later received a presidential pardon from Mr Trump.
“Baby, I don’t get what’s triggering this now – Manafort’s going away. The Mueller report is coming Real Soon,” Mr Toebbe replied, according to filings.
“It’s been too long. Nothing has changed. He’s still in power,” she responded.
“Nothing in government moves that fast – believe me, I speak from personal experience,” Mr Toebbe wrote.
“Manafort got a slap on the wrist,” Ms Toebbe replied. “It’s a signal that the entire system is rigged.”
Court filings also argued that Ms 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.”
The filings include a copy of a letter written by Mr Toebbe to his wife’s father, saying: “I have high hopes that Diana will ultimately be exonerated.”
Federal prosecutors allege that Jonathan Toebbe, who previously worked on the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion programme, had mailed a package of classified information in April 2020 to representatives of a foreign country, with instructions for contacting him and an offer to reveal plans in exchange for up to $5m in cryptocurrency.
It is unclear how the US government came into contact with the package, though it is suggested in court documents that the unnamed country had contacted them; FBI agents obtained the package in December 2020, then responded to Mr Toebbe by pretending to be a representative from that country.
Over the course of several months, Mr Toebbe allegedly negotiated several “dead drops” of memory cards, concealed in a bag with a peanut butter sandwich, a Band-Aid wrapper, and a chewing gun package.
The couple was arrested on 9 October.
Prosecutors have alleged that Diana Toebbe acted as a lookout during each drop.
“Considering her husband’s statements exculpating her, plus the newly disclosed instant messages showing that she did not want to leave the country for illegal reasons, the weight of evidence against her is significantly, if not totally, diminished,” lawyers for Ms Toebbe wrote in their filing on 8 December.
“Indeed, the only evidence against her is that she was present with her husband when he made three of the [drops],” they wrote. “Of course, mere presence at the scene of a crime is not enough to convict a person of the crime. Thus, the weight of the evidence against Mrs Toebbe does not support detaining her pending trial.”
Prosecutors have yet to respond to the filing.