A former U.S. government spokesman pleaded guilty Thursday to cheating more than a dozen companies out of more than $4 million by falsely claiming he was working on top-secret programs for the CIA.
Garrison Courtney, a former spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, appeared in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, and admitted that he engaged in a fraud scheme between 2012 and 2016, claiming to be a covert employee affiliated with the CIA. He said he was assigned to a highly classified government program called Alpha-214 that, in fact, did not exist.
Court documents said Courtney convinced private government contracting companies that they needed to put him on their payrolls to give him a cover story which would mask his CIA affiliation. The charges said he often met in secure locations with company representatives, persuaded them to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from discussing the contracts with others, and told them they were under surveillance by foreign intelligence services. He threatened to revoke the security clearances of any company that tried to look into his supposedly covert status.
He also persuaded half a dozen former government officials he had worked with to give generic presentations to the companies in order to enhance his appearance of legitimacy. They acted as "unwitting props," the Justice Department said. Courtney told the companies he was a U.S. Army veteran who killed hundreds during the Gulf War and survived an assassination attempt — none of which was true.
In the later phases of the scheme, he was actually hired as a private contractor for a branch of the National Institutes of Health that provides acquisition support. That position allowed him to try to steer contracts to companies that had put him on the payroll as part of his CIA scam.
An executive at one of the companies cheated in the scam, who asked that his name not be used, told NBC News that he met Courtney at a Washington, D.C., Freemasons' lodge and considered him trustworthy.
“It’s part of the oath, to act honorably, and Garrison was associating with some former high-ranking officials at the lodge,” he said.
But the executive said he soon began to suspect that Courtney was not telling the truth and alerted the FBI and DEA.
Federal district court Judge Liam O'Grady scheduled sentencing for late October. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, although as a first-time offender his prison term will be shorter than that.
Courtney, 44, was a DHS spokesman for three years before serving as the chief DEA spokesman for four years, beginning in August 2005. He was also a spokesman for former Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla.