Capitol at night
"Washington DC" by barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Credit: barnyz

On October 23rd, Garrison Courtney will be sentenced in court after pleading guilty to an elaborate fraud scheme that raked in at least $4.4 million from federal contractors. The tale reads like a Hollywood script. Courtney had a relatively undistinguished career as a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. But apparently he studied up on spycraft and, as his high school drama teacher suggested, “Sometimes I think I trained him too well as an actor.”

Courtney presented himself to unwitting private companies as a CIA agent who could steer contracts their way if they gave him a salary and an office. To back up his story, Courtney produced memos on the letterhead of various federal agencies spelling out authorization for what he was doing and containing the forged signatures of high-level government officials. He also recruited current and former military leaders to a task force he named “Alpha214” and used them as unwitting props to validate his claims. 

Incredibly, the now 44-year-old built enough of a reputation to actually place himself inside the National Institutes of Health as a watchdog over the allocation of no-bid contracts. What you have at that point is the proverbial fox inside the henhouse. But by that time, the scheme had started to unravel.

Some of the heroes of this story were lawyers at the companies Courtney swindled who began asking why they weren’t being paid under the contracts they had signed. 

Navid Keshavarz-Nia was another hero. He had done cybersecurity and technical counterintelligence work for the C.I.A., N.S.A., and F.B.I. After several months of working with Courtney, he fired off a resignation letter from Alpha214, distributed to its members, and addressed Courtney directly: “It is clear that I have been deliberately deceived, lied to and criminally victimized by you based on your numerous false statements.” At about the same time, the Justice Department began an investigation.

It’s not hard to figure out how this fraud could work. You take a skilled con artist and add it to the feeding frenzy for government contracts. Combine that toxic mix with something my colleague Gilad Edelman wrote for the Washington Monthly three years ago.

While the number of federal employees has basically flatlined for a half-century, the government has ballooned if you include another group in your tally: private contractors. As the size and scope of federal programs grew, but the number of civil servants stayed fixed, that labor had to get done by someone. Congress’s answer has increasingly been to contract with the private sector…

Very few Americans realize that this exact trend—using contractors to hide the true size and cost of a government mission—is not even close to being limited to the military. It’s ubiquitous. There has been a de facto political cap on federal workers since the 1970s, and every administration since at least Jimmy Carter’s has used contractors to get around it. Bill Clinton, who announced that “the era of big government is over,” harvested the end of the Cold War to cut 400,000 federal jobs, mostly in defense. But big government was only over if you ignored the contracting workforce, which kept rising by the hundreds of thousands. The Bush administration took things to another level, as contracting morphed from a way to sneakily expand government to an ideological goal in itself.

There are lessons from this tale that go beyond the importance of holding an individual like Courtney accountable for his crimes. Here’s how Edelman summarized the situation:

The key is to transcend the false choice of big government versus small government. The real choice is between a transparent and relatively competent big government of civil servants and a dysfunctional shadow big government of private contractors.

Whenever our government operates in the shadows, exploitation by con artists like Courtney is possible.   

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.