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A former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear physicist and his wife have pleaded guilty to federal charges that include communicating classified nuclear weapons data.
Federal prosecutors announced the pleas of Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni late Friday. The couple had initially pleaded not guilty in 2010 after they were indicted for violating the Atomic Energy Act.
The two were accused of offering to help develop a nuclear weapon for Venezuela through dealings with an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a representative of the Venezuelan government.
Prosecutors say the Mascheronis held security clearances that allowed them access to certain classified data while they were employed by the northern New Mexico lab.
Under the plea agreements, the 77-year-old Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni is facing up to 66 months in prison. His wife could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison.
The court still has to approve the plea agreements, and sentencing hearings for the couple have yet to be scheduled.
A 22-count indictment was returned by a federal grand jury in the District of New Mexico in September of 2010.
The couple was arrested by FBI agents at their Los Alamos home and made their initial appearance in federal court in Albuquerque.
The indictment did not allege that the government of Venezuela or anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information, nor does it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing.
The indictment also did not charge individuals working at LANL with wrongdoing, according to a press release from the Department of Justice at the time of the investigation.
“The laboratory has worked cooperatively with federal law enforcement throughout this investigation and will continue to assist as appropriate during the prosecution phase,” said LANL spokesman Kevin Roark. “It would be inappropriate to discuss specific details of the investigation until the completion of judicial proceedings.”
Mascheroni, a Ph.D. physicist, worked as a scientist at LANL from 1979-1988 and held a security clearance that allowed him access to certain classified information, including “Restricted Data.”
His wife worked at LANL between 1981 and 2010, where her duties included technical writing and editing. She also held a security clearance at LANL that allowed her access to certain classified information, including “Restricted Data.”
“Restricted Data” is classified information concerning the design, manufacture or use of atomic weapons; the production of special nuclear material; or the use of special nuclear material in the production of energy.
The indictment also charged Mascheroni with concealing and retaining U.S. records with the intent to convert them to his own use and gain, as well as six counts of making false statements.
Roxby Mascheroni was also charged with seven counts of making false statements.
“Our laws are designed to prevent ‘Restricted Data’ from falling into the wrong hands because of the potential harm to our national security,” officials said. “Employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who have access to ‘Restricted Data’ are charged with safeguarding that sensitive information, even after they leave the lab.”
In a 2009 interview with the Los Alamos Monitor, Mascheroni’s wife Marjorie Mascheroni said they have been married 42 years. LANL placed her on administrative leave and she said she didn’t want to comment further. She did say in reference to her husband, “He had the best intentions but may have gone about it the wrong way.”
The investigation Mascheroni said, involved his dealings with a man representing himself to be from the Venezuelan government in an attempt to spark U.S. congressional interest in a laser fusion project he developed that eliminates the need for nuclear testing.
“Luis” as the man called himself, agreed to pay Mascheroni $800,000 to write a nuclear weapons program for the Venezuelan government to use as a deterrent against the United States, Mascheroni said, adding that Luis told him Venezuela is scared of a U.S. invasion.
Mascheroni agreed to Luis’ request, saying his intention was to show the U.S. Congress that another country saw merit in his laser program so they would convene hearings in which he could convince them that his program would benefit mankind. He added that he was positive Venezuela could not build a nuclear weapon and the documents he gave Luis were to educate the Venezuelan government to that fact.
Mascheroni reiterated in the 2009 interview that the documents he gave to Luis were not classified and the information he used to create them could be found on the Internet. He added that in all his dealings with Congress, no one ever told him anything he had was classified.
Mascheroni said he couldn’t remember the date exactly but thought it was perhaps November 2008; Luis gave him a sealed envelope containing $20,000 in cash and a promise to deposit an additional $400,000 in a Los Alamos National Bank account for him. The deposit was never made, he said.
--Monitor Staff and Wire Reports