SANTA FE, N.M. — P. Leonardo Mascheroni, the former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who pleaded guilty in June to providing classified nuclear weapons information to a man he believed to be a Venezuelan government official, may withdraw his guilty pleas, according to federal court documents.
In any case, Mascheroni is back behind bars for now, by order of federal District Judge William P. Johnson of Albuquerque.
Mascheroni, 78, had been free under court-mandated conditions since soon after his June 2010 arrest.
He pleaded guilty in June of this year to charges related to what federal authorities have described as a bizarre plan to help Venezuela, under former President Hugo Chavez, build missiles and a nuclear bomb, along with a secret underground facility for a nuclear reactor and production of “mini-bombs.”
Mascheroni is accused of providing the plans and classified information to an FBI officer masquerading as a Venezuelan agent. According to the indictments of Mascheroni and his wife in 2010, he also suggested an explosion over New York that could produce an “electromagnetic pulse” to knock out the metropolis’ electrical power and a laser that could blind satellites; and making Venezuela Latin America’s defense “umbrella,” able to retaliate against attacks with nuclear bombs.
Mascheroni, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, faces up to 5½ years in prison under terms of his plea arrangement. No date for his sentencing hearing has been set. His wife, Roxby, also has entered guilty pleas and faces a shorter maximum prison term.
In a Nov. 13 order following a closed hearing, Judge Johnson revoked Mascheroni’s conditions of release and remanded him to federal custody.
The judge, in a recent court filing, indicated that he is concerned about a 35-page letter Mascheroni recently gave him as part of an effort to replace his current attorneys, who were appointed to represent him under the federal Criminal Justice Act.
Johnson wrote that the Department of Energy has determined that the letter contains classified information. The judge said he has concerns that it was produced on a non-secure computer and about whether Mascheroni “had access to classified information during the process of writing the letter” and may have “accessed classified information while on pre-trial release.”
The contents of the letter have not been disclosed, and it is under seal. The judge has asked federal prosecutors and Mascheroni’s lawyer – for now, a federal public defender – to present arguments on whether the letter should be provided to government prosecutors.
Daughter typed letter
Assistant Federal Public Defender Richard Winterbottom, in a Nov. 27 filing, says Mascheroni’s letter was typed out by his daughter, raising the issue of whether bringing the daughter into the matter “waived any attorney-client privilege with which the letter may be protected” as confidential.
The daughter is a lawyer but isn’t representing the Mascheronis in this case. Winterbottom wrote that her typing up the Nov. 5 letter as a way for Mascheroni to produce “a legible copy” should not waive attorney-client confidentiality and that the letter has been shared only with Judge Johnson.
He says the letter “articulated Dr. Mascheroni’s dissatisfaction with his current counsel and requested the appointment of substitute counsel.” It was intended to support a sealed request by his current lawyers to withdraw from representing Mascheroni, Winterbottom said.
The letter discusses work performed by Mascheroni’s lawyers, work “they failed to perform” and explores possible defenses. “It is the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of both his defense and his possible sentencing defense,” Winterbottom wrote, and its disclosure would provide government prosecutors with an advantage.
Also, the fact that the disclosures in the letter were presented to the judge shouldn’t waive confidentiality, the filing argues, because going to the judge is the only way Mascheroni can address replacing his appointed lawyers.
Winterbottom concludes by adding that Mascheroni “may seek to withdraw his plea.” That “future possibility” is “a matter is perhaps better addressed by substitute counsel,” he wrote.
Prosecutors have roughly a week to file their response.
Raid in Los Alamos
In 2009, after federal agents raided Mascheroni’s Los Alamos home, he acknowledged that he had received $20,000 from a man claiming to represent Venezuela in return for a report on how Venezuela could develop “a nuclear deterrent” that he hoped would show then-President Chavez that a nuclear weapons program was impractical. He maintained then that all of the information was unclassified from the Internet and contained nothing that could help Venezuela develop a nuclear weapon.
But in this year’s plea agreement, Mascheroni admitted that he unlawfully communicated restricted data “with reason to believe that the data would be utilized to secure an advantage to Venezuela.”
Mascheroni worked for LANL from 1979-88 with a “Q” security clearance providing access to classified information.
The raid on the Mascheroni home in 2010 made news around the world and even provoked comment from Hugo Chavez, who died earlier this year.
The controversial leftist said the investigation was part of a plan to portray Venezuela “as a nuclear government.” The subsequent indictments didn’t allege the government of Venezuela ever sought or was passed any classified information.