The former chief spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration admitted Thursday that he ran a $4.4 million scam by manipulating officials from the DEA, the Army, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Institutes of Health as he falsely claimed he was part of a covert task force doing secret operations in Africa.
Garrison Courtney, 44, of Tampa, Fla., acknowledged in Alexandria, Va.-based federal court that between 2012 and 2016 he perpetuated a complicated scheme involving at least three other unnamed individuals, seven public officials and 13 companies.
He convinced victims that he was an undercover operative for the CIA, then persuaded private companies to pay him as a secret officer. He then finagled a job at a federal agency where he steered contracts to those companies as repayment, telling both sides that it was part of the classified project.
Courtney was the chief DEA spokesman from 2005 to 2009, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security before that, and has been working as a private consultant since 2010, according to his LinkedIn page. He had worked as chief of staff to Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla.
He never worked for the CIA, though he interviewed for a job there in 2006 and was extended a tentative employment offer that lapsed two years later.
He admitted in his plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady that his ploy to convince companies that he was with the CIA cost those companies nearly $4.5 million. Courtney agreed to make restitution in that amount and also to forfeit almost $2 million in cash and assets.
“It’s an understatement to describe this fraud scheme as a murky tour through the shadows of U.S. intelligence,” said Steven Leitess, an attorney for the victim who lost the most money in the case, the Virginia-based investment firm Capefirst Funding. “Mr. Courtney adroitly manipulated government officials and private individuals for several years for the purpose of enriching himself.”
Capefirst paid off a $1.9 million Courtney debt owed to another company, under the pretense that the government was planning to take over the firm and would offer reimbursement.
Courtney told private companies that he was a covert CIA operative and that they needed to hire him as cover for his secret CIA activities. He convinced the companies to sign nondisclosure agreements about their work with him and created fake letters claiming to grant blanket immunity to participants in the classified program. He claimed that his identity and many of his actions were “highly classified,” according to the statement of facts. The task force he made up was called “Alpha214” or “A214.”
Courtney also convinced public officials that they had been selected to participate in the purported classified program. Public officials echoed Courtney’s lies at meetings with corporate victims, bolstering his credibility. They also gave him access to secure compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs, where he would hold supposedly classified meetings with victims. Some clients were searched or deprived of their phones before meetings, and he would tell them to stay off social media and limit credit card use to avoid foreign surveillance.
When some victims started raising questions, according to the plea documents, Courtney would accuse them of mishandling classified information and threaten them with prosecution. He accused one suspicious individual of being an Iranian spy.
It was, O’Grady said, “a way to deflect suspicion away from your own fraud.”
He fooled a high-ranking officer in the Air Force, according to prosecutors, and a retired high-ranking officer in the Navy.
Courtney also lied about killing hundreds of people while serving in the Army during the Gulf War, sustaining lung injuries from blazing oil fields and escaping a ricin poisoning attempt by a hostile foreign intelligence service.
In fact, prosecutors say, Courtney joined the Army after the war and had lung problems from asthma exacerbated by fighting forest fires in Missouri.
At one point, a court document said, he convinced one company to hire the adult child of a public official, who was not otherwise qualified for the job, on the pretense that it was necessary for a covert operation. The official and the company were not identified.
Courtney convinced the National Institutes of Health’s Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center, or NITAAC, to hire him as a covert officer. Once there, he persuaded the agency to issue sole-source contracts to some of the companies that had already hired him, O’Grady said, “because of national security concerns.”
Prosecutors would not say how Courtney’s scheme was uncovered. Leitess said his client has been involved in the investigation for years and hopes to see more charges. Garrison said another individual, unnamed in proceedings, also posed as a CIA officer.
“Mr. Courtney apologizes to his victims and accepts full responsibility for his actions,” said his attorney Stuart Sears. “We will not comment any further on today’s proceedings, and we ask you to respect his family’s privacy.”
Pending sentencing, Courtney was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond with electronic monitoring. The hearing before O’Grady was open to the public by phone teleconference, a concession the court has made for the coronavirus pandemic.
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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.