A former federal employee with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has pleaded guilty to defrauding at least a dozen companies of over $4.4 million by posing falsely as a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
According to an announcement from the Justice Department, Garrison Kenneth Courtney of Tampa, FL was a public affairs officer at the DEA. He falsely claimed to be a covert officer of the CIA involved in a highly-classified program or “task force” involving various components of the United States Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense.
According to his fabricated story, this supposed classified program sought to enhance the intelligence gathering capabilities of the United States government.
To accomplish the fraud, Courtney approached about a dozen private companies and told them he was part of a covert CIA operation, claiming that the companies needed to hire and pay him to create what Courtney described as “commercial cover,” i.e., to mask his supposed affiliation with the CIA. He also fraudulently claimed that the companies would be reimbursed in the future for these salary payments, sometimes by the award of lucrative contracts from the United States government in connection with the supposedly classified program.
Courtney also went to great lengths to maintain the illusion of being a deep-cover CIA operative. Some of his tactics included:
- He falsely claimed that his identity and large portions of his conduct were classified;
- He directed victims and witnesses to sign fake nondisclosure agreements that purported to be from the U.S. government and that forbade anyone involved from speaking openly about the supposedly classified program;
- He told victims and witnesses that they were under surveillance by hostile foreign intelligence services;
- He made a show of searching people for electronic devices as part of his supposed counterintelligence methods;
- He demanded that his victims meet in sensitive compartmented information facilities to create the illusion that they were participating in a classified intelligence operation;
- He repeatedly threatened anyone who questioned his legitimacy with revocation of their security clearance and criminal prosecution if they “leaked” or continued to look into the supposedly classified information
- He created fake letters allegedly issued by the US Attorney General which claimed to grant blanket immunity to those who participated in the supposedly classified program
As a further part of the scheme, Courtney created a fraudulent backstory about himself, claiming that he had served in the U.S. Army during the Gulf War, had hundreds of confirmed kills while in combat, sustained lung injuries from smoke caused by fires set to Iraq’s oil fields, and that a hostile foreign intelligence service had attempted to assassinate him by poisoning him with ricin. All of these claims were false.
To further legitimize his story, Courtney also convinced several real governmental officials that he was participating in this “task force,” explained that they had been selected to participate in the program, and then used those officials as unwitting props. According to the Associated Press, some of these officials included high-ranking DEA and military officials, one of whom had Courtney arrange for his adult son to be hired by two of the victim companies, even though he was unqualified.
For example, he directed his victims to speak with these public officials to verify his claims, and separately instructed the government officials as to exactly what to say, thereby creating the false appearance to the victims that the government officials had independently validated his story, when in fact the officials merely were echoing the false information fed to them by Courtney. He even managed to convince those officials to sometimes meet with victims inside secure government facilities, thereby furthering the false appearance of authenticity.
Courtney’s grand scheme paid off for him. In addition to the $4.4 million he defrauded from the victim companies, he was able to fraudulently obtain a position working as a private contract for National Institutes of Health (NIH) Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC), a branch of NIH that provides acquisition support services to federal agencies.
Once he had installed himself at NITAAC, Courtney gained access to sensitive, nonpublic information about the procurements of other federal agencies being supported by NITAAC. Courtney thereafter used that information to attempt to corrupt the procurement process by steering the award of contracts to companies where he was then also on the payroll, and used the false pretext of national security concerns to warp the process by preventing full and open competition.
The lawyer for Capefirst Funding, one of the companies defrauded by Courtney, told the New York Times how Courtney pulled off the scheme.
“The way Courtney did it was by putting a great deal of pressure on the funding source to raise the money to meet a supposed deadline to provide funding for an alleged classified national security program that was critical to United States interest,” said Steven N. Leitess, the attorney representing Capefirst Funding, told the Times.
Capefirst Funding was conned by Courtney into raising $1.93 million for him. The company raised the money under the premise that he would pay it $2.55 million in 30 days.
When that didn’t happen, the company began inquiring about the money, and Courtney would deflect the inquiries.
“My client [Capefirst Funding] would follow up, stay on top of it, and press for information,” Leitess said. “Finally they were notified of a federal criminal investigation in the spring of 2016.”
Sentencing for Courtney has been scheduled for October 23, 2020. He faces up to 20 years in prison.