Former immigration, drug enforcement spokesman admits to long-running scam

By RACHEL WEINER AND TOM JACKMAN | The Washington Post | Published: June 11, 2020

WASHINGTON — The former chief spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration admitted Thursday that he made over $4 million by falsely convincing officials in the DEA, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the Directorate of National Intelligence and beyond that 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.

His convinced victims that he was an undercover operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, then convinced private companies to pay him as a secret officer while also using at least one federal agency to then reimburse those companies in a bizarre Ponzi scheme that eventually collapsed.

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 previously worked as chief of staff to Florida congresswoman Katherine Harris.

But 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 more than $1 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 biggest victim in the case, the 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 him, and even held meetings with them in secure compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs. He created fake letters claiming to grant blanket immunity to participants in the classified program.

He also convinced public officials that they had been selected to participate in a classified program as a ploy to get access to their offices and contracting documents. When officials and clients raised questions, according to the plea documents, Courtney would accuse them of mishandling classified information and threaten them with prosecution. It was, O’Grady said, “a way to deflect suspicion away from your own fraud.”

Courtney also lied about serving in the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf War, sustaining lung injuries from blazing oil fields and escaping a ricin poisoning attempt by a hostile foreign intelligence service.

At one point, the 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 CIA officer. Once there, he persuaded the agency to issue sole-source contracts to some of the companies that already had hired him, O’Grady said.

It was not immediately clear how Courtney’s scheme was uncovered. Leitess said his client has been involved in the investigation for years and hopes to see more charges.

“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.”

Courtney was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond pending sentencing. 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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