VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A magistrate judge Tuesday denied bond for a former sailor accused of spying after prosecutors detailed their case against him, saying he passed secret information to what he thought were Russian agents on three occasions.
However, defense lawyers representing Robert P. Hoffman II in U.S. District Court contend he was entrapped by overzealous FBI agents who pursued their client even after he tried to report his meetings to them.
"It's the most serious kind of offense the government can bring," U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Miller said of the charge.
Hoffman, 39, a retired petty officer first class from Virginia Beach, is accused of passing classified information to undercover FBI agents posing as Russian intelligence officers. The charge carries a possible death sentence, but federal prosecutors say they will not pursue that penalty.
After learning that Hoffman had traveled to Eastern Europe, the FBI sent him a letter Sept. 21, purporting to be from Moscow, asking Hoffman if he wished to provide "technical assistance," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Krask told Miller.
Hoffman responded the same day, writing back that "I look forward to renewing our friendship," Krask said. Hoffman received a follow-up letter saying he would be dealing with the highest levels of Russian intelligence, the prosecutor added.
After reaching an agreement, Krask said, Hoffman made "dead drops" of classified information to the undercover agents in Virginia Beach on Sept. 30, Oct. 4 and Oct. 21.
Hoffman told the agents "he would be happy to help the Russian navy," Krask said.
It was not disclosed whether the undercover agents paid Hoffman, but Krask said the government became more concerned when Hoffman told an agent that "taking a life would require significant compensation."
Hoffman was a cryptologist in the Navy and is charged with passing secret information pertaining to U.S. submarine operations. He did not pass official government documents but instead created his own documents of secret information from memory, Krask said.
Then on Oct. 31, Hoffman showed up at the local FBI office to confess some of what he had done, Krask said. FBI agents played dumb as Hoffman told them he was working with the Russians but planned to "build their trust and get the FBI involved," the prosecutor said.
He said FBI agents first became suspicious of Hoffman after learning that he traveled to an Eastern European country in August 2011 and went to that country's presidential palace to give a gift to its president. He did not elaborate.
Sources close to the case who are not authorized to comment publicly say the country was Belarus, the gift was coins and that Hoffman had also spent time in strip clubs there. Hoffman's Facebook page last week listed numerous female "friends" from Belarus.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Keith Kimball told the judge the case hinted of entrapment, adding that Hoffman "was set up by the FBI."
"This whole circumstance was orchestrated by the FBI," he told the judge. "Where's the potential harm? Did it really exist?"
Kimball also questioned why the FBI did not tell Hoffman he was under investigation when he showed up at its doorstep.
"Where's the intent?" Kimball said. "He's going to the FBI to tell them what's going on."
Hoffman was arrested at his home Thursday on the indictment. His background was reviewed by court officials who recommended to the judge that Hoffman be allowed to go free on bond pending trial. Kimball argued for release.
Krask argued that Hoffman should be detained because of his Eastern European travels and connections, and his alleged suggestion that he would be willing to take a life for the Russians.
Hoffman had served 20 years in the Navy before retiring with an honorable discharge. Kimball said Hoffman is divorced with three children who live in New York. He is unemployed but had been attending school, he said.
Hoffman will return to federal court Dec. 19 for arraignment and setting of a trial date.