Stewart Nozette, once a prominent scientist for NASA who served on the Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempted espionage, a case that attracted widespread notice but began as a seemingly routine fraud investigation.
“Today, he is a disgraced criminal who was caught red-handed attempting to trade American secrets for personal profit,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District, after Nozette, 54, pleaded guilty to giving classified information to an undercover FBI agent.
But when the federal investigation into Nozette began back in 2006, there was no hint he was capable of selling U.S. secrets, according to court records.
Instead, NASA’s office of inspector general began looking into Nozette because of questions about the finances of a nonprofit organization he ran called the Alliance for Competitive Technology, which charged NASA for work he was performing for the space agency.
The numbers weren’t adding up. While NASA said the alliance invoiced the agency for Nozette’s $141,718 salary, records showed the nonprofit group reported less than $20,000 in salary expenses on its 2004 report to the Internal Revenue Service. When reviewing the nonprofit organization’s bank records, an agent for the inspector general uncovered numerous personal expenses.
The investigator found payments for utilities, three mortgages, nine credit cards, the La Jolla, Calif., Tennis Club, pool cleaning and the Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp.
In 2006, The Washington Times reported that federal authorities had subpoenaed bank records from Nozette’s nonprofit group.
The Justice Department, filing papers on behalf of the inspector general, said Nozette’s organization didn’t comply with a request for bank records and tax documents.
That was around the time the investigation took a sharp turn.
When federal agents later raided Nozette’s house, they found classified documents that led them to a 2002 email in which Nozette threatened to take a classified program on which he was working to an unnamed foreign country or to Israel.
The FBI then launched a separate undercover investigation into Nozette over potential espionage.
An undercover agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer called Nozette on Sept. 3, 2009, and set up a meeting that day in front of the Mayflower hotel in Washington.
Over the next few weeks, FBI agents gave cash to Nozette in exchange for information he provided on a classified satellite, weapons-system research and other secret national security matters.
Nozette met with the undercover agent again in October at the Mayflower and asked for more money, according to exchanges of the meeting released by prosecutors.
“So, uh, I gave you even in this first run, some of the most classified information that there is,” Nozette said. “Now the, uh, so I think when I said like fifty K, I think that was probably too low. … The cost of the U.S. government was $200 million … to develop it all. Uh, and then that’s not including the launching of it. … Uh, integrating satellites.
“So if you say OK, that probably brings it to almost a billion dollars. … So I tell ya, at least $200 million, so I would say, you know, theoretically I should charge you certainly, you know, at most a one percent,” he said.
Nozette was arrested at the Mayflower and charged with espionage while he already was awaiting sentencing on fraud charges stemming from the earlier investigation into his nonprofit organization.
Under a plea deal, which is subject to a judge’s approval, Nozette will serve 13 years in federal prison concurrently for guilty pleas to the espionage and fraud charges.
The inspector general’s office, which began investigating Nozette five years ago, declined to comment on his guilty plea Wednesday.
James W. McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, called the case “a prime example of what happens when a person decides to sell our nation’s most valuable secrets for individual gain.”
Nozette’s work as a government scientist spanned decades. He worked on the National Space Council under Mr. Bush from 1989 to 1990 and as a physicist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1990 to 1999.
The U.S. attorney’s office said Nozette “assisted in the development of the Clementine bi-static radar experiment, which purportedly discovered water ice on the south pole of the moon.” Prosecutors also noted that a version of the Clementine satellite still hangs on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Despite all of his accomplishments, at the time Nozette met with the undercover FBI agent, he didn’t have access to classified government information anymore. Nonetheless, prosecutors said, Nozette made clear that he could still recall the information.
“It’s in my …” Nozette said, before pointing to his head.