As part of a plea deal in a fraud case last year, espionage suspect Stewart Nozette agreed to cooperate with authorities in a separate criminal probe and was specifically allowed to keep his passport because international travel was essential to his work as an informant, according to newly unsealed court documents.
The revelations raise a number of difficult-to-answer questions, including why a man with access to Top Secret weapons information and a fraud conviction — about whom authorities already had national security concerns — was permitted to retain his passport. And they add yet another layer of intrigue to the case of a top government scientist who allegedly sold classified info to an FBI employee posing as an Israeli agent in September.
The court records, which had been sealed because of Nozette’s cooperation in the separate criminal probe, show that he plead guilty in January to overbilling NASA and other agencies $265,000 in contracting work and using the money to pay for personal expenses such as swimming pool maintenance. As part of the deal, the Feds promised to advocate for a reduced sentence. The case for which Nozette cooperated involved potential crimes by government officials.
After the plea deal was entered on January 30, filings show, the government “did not object to the defendant retaining his passport and traveling internationally, as such travel was deemed necessary as part of the defendant’s cooperation.” Nozette had signed the deal in early December.
January 30 was just two days after Nozette returned from a three-week trip to India, probably as part of his work on the Chandrayaan-1 moon project. On that very trip, according to court docs in the espionage case, a TSA officer had been careful to search Nozette as he was leaving, and a customs officer to do the same when he returned. They found he brought along two computer thumb drives but did not bring them back to the United States.
Why is this significant? Because authorities had become concerned that Nozette was an espionage threat a while back, after the NASA inspector general started probing his finances in 2006. Not only that, Nozette allegedly told a colleague before the January trip that if the government tried to jail him for fraud, he would go to Israel or India and tell them everything he knew.
That colleague tipped off investigators, but it’s not known whether the tip was delivered before or after the trip to India.
Did Nozette travel to India in January fearing that he was going to go to jail? Based on what we know now, it’s impossible to say just what happened.
Another question is where, if anywhere, Nozette traveled as part of his cooperation with authorities.
In June, prosecutors said in a filing that international travel was no longer required as part of Nozette’s cooperation. He was forced to hand over his passport to his attorney.
And prosecutors received permission to reveal the fraud case to the security offices of the agencies to which Nozette still had access — including NASA and the Defense Department.
Sentencing in the fraud case is set for November 18, though the defense plans to try to postpone it in light of the new espionage indictment.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post today published a profile of Nozette focusing on a different angle: his friends are shocked by the charges against the ambitious star scientist, who once scribbled plans for a military rocket on a napkin.