NASA Lunar Scientist Gets 13 Years in Espionage Case

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Former NASA scientist Stewart D. Nozette, 54, of Chevy Chase, Md., was sentenced March 21 to 13 years in prison for attempted espionage, conspiracy to defraud the United States and tax evasion.

Nozette, a planetary scientist who has worked in the national security arena and designed science instruments for several space missions, including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayan-1 lunar orbiter, pleaded guilty in September 2011 to attempted espionage for selling classified information about U.S. satellites, early warning systems and other national defense capabilities to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer. Nozette was arrested on the espionage charges in October 2009 while awaiting sentencing on fraud and tax evasion charges stemming from more than $265,000 in false claims he submitted to government clients, including NASA. Nozette worked for NASA, the Naval Research Laboratory and other government agencies under Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreements contracted through the Alliance for Competitive Technology, a nonprofit Nozette organized and ran.

Computer drives recovered from Nozette’s home as part of the false claims case led the FBI to initiate its undercover investigation and sting operation. Information on these drives revealed that Nozette had been working for nearly a decade as a paid consultant to Israel Aircraft Industries.

“We are proud that NASA [Office of Inspector General’s] fraud investigation of Nozette, which began in 2006, served as the catalyst for further investigation and today’s outcome,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in a statement.

A March 16 sentencing memorandum Nozette’s defense lawyers submitted to the court paints a picture of a brilliant but flawed scientist entrapped by overzealous FBI agents. “[T]his case is not about a man who had been committing acts of espionage for years,” the memo states. “Rather this case is about the FBI wrongly suspecting Dr. Nozette was spying for Israel and then malevolently targeting him in hopes they could ultimately ensnare him within the nation’s espionage laws. The agents well knew that Dr. Nozette was extremely vulnerable as a result of the impending prospect of prison in connection with his fraud case and a host of unusual circumstances.”

Nozette’s lawyers assert that the FBI initiated its sting operation after a year of “almost constant surveillance had revealed no activity reasonably suggesting espionage.

“Most astonishingly, the [undercover agent] … pushed and pushed after Dr. Nozette repeatedly said he was happy to help the Mossad and Israel, a country his deceased father had fervently supported, but he could nevertheless not give them classified information,” the memo continues. “But in their unbending determination to hit the bulls-eye they had placed on Dr. Nozette, the agents directly played on his heritage and his family’s known support of Israel and went out of their way to dangle the prospect of significant financial rewards before him.”

The memo also notes that Nozette was cooperating around the same time with another team of FBI agents “uncovering corruption in the space procurement industry.”

Nozette, who has been in custody since his October 2009 arrest, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Washington. In addition to jail time, he was ordered to pay $217,000 in restitution to the government agencies he defrauded.