For years, Garrison Courtney pretended to be a covert officer of the CIA, secretly raking in millions of dollars from unsuspecting members of the intelligence and defense communities who believed the former weatherman was a talented spy.
But Courtney’s web of lies would come crashing down in 2020 when he was sentenced to seven years behind bars for defrauding at least a dozen companies of over $4.4 million during the elaborate ruse, according to the Department of Justice.
“Courtney’s brazen and salacious fraud was centered on the lie that he was involved in a highly-classified intelligence program, and that he was a covert CIA officer engaged in significant national security work. In fact, Courtney never worked for the CIA, the supposed classified program did not exist, and Courtney invented the elaborate lie to cheat his victims out of over $4.4 million,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, a U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said at the time.
Courtney’s stunning fraud is the focus of the latest episode of CNBC's “American Greed,” airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. It dives into Courtney’s past and how he was able to cunningly con some of the nation’s highest-ranking security officers—and his own wife, who believed he was employed by the CIA.
According to now-ex-wife Andree Pierson, Courtney told her he had a “very rough upbringing” in Great Falls, Montana.
“He came from a broken household and he had been very independent and on his own since a very young age, since his late teens,” she said.
Courtney spent time in the Armed Forces before attending the University of Montana, where he honed his ability to tell tall tales.
“I think he really liked to B.S. people,” his roommate Bill Foley said. “It’s easy to see how people could believe him because he was really good at, you know, thinking on his feet.”
It was that quick thinking that helped land him a job as a television weatherman, first in Montana and then in the Pacific Northwest, before he left the news business for other opportunities.
By 2005, Courtney had moved to Washington, D.C. where he took a job as a DEA spokesperson.
“Garrison had a very charming personality, but he’s always trying to come across as a very likable person and wants to be accepted so he’s very eager to please. He was the guy. Whatever you needed, he had it,” Pierson said.
Eventually Courtney believed the real opportunity in a post-9/11 world was in defense and intelligence contracting and got a job working on a high-stakes project in the private sector.
“He was building a small team to assist a cluster of lawyers here in D.C. in pushing through media and public affairs and government relations efforts to release a small handful of Kuwaiti prisoners who were still being held in Guantanamo Bay,” Ian McCaleb, a former Fox News reporter who had worked with Courtney on the project, told “American Greed.”
Courtney promised his clients op-ed placements in top-tier media and said he’d reach out to key legislators and President Obama to try to secure the prisoners' release, but Courtney was fired from the job after over-promising things he couldn’t deliver.
Authorities say it was the impetus he needed to begin visiting various defense and intelligence contractors in 2012 around Washington D.C. to set up his elaborate fraud.
Prosecutors said Courtney claimed extensive combat experience in the military, earning hundreds of confirmed kills, before damaging his lungs inhaling fumes from Kuwaiti oil fires.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heidi Gesch said that he told some people his kills had come during combat, while telling others he'd been an “assassin.”
Courtney claimed to have been recruited by the CIA after his military service, in an effort to capitalize on a feeling of patriotism that ran rampant among many defense contractors.
“It’s clear that his intent was to convince people that he was some type of extraordinarily sophisticated deep-cover spy for the United States government, akin to the things you might see in a movie,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Burke said.
Courtney claimed to be running a secretive task force or “program” known as A214 or Alpha 214, authorized directly by some of the country’s highest government figures and requested the companies pay him a salary to provide what’s known as “commercial cover.”
The salary would help obscure his role in the highly secretive program and, in exchange, he promised the companies lucrative government contracts.
“I mean, these were going to be multi-million, billion-[dollar] contracts that were going to be coming down the road to these companies,” his former attorney Stuart Sears told "American Greed."
As a result of the scam, Courtney was often collecting salaries simultaneously from five or six different companies, who believed they were providing the commercial cover.
To pull off the ruse, he had companies sign fake nondisclosure agreements seemingly from the United States Government that forbade anyone from talking about the program and claimed that those involved with the program were under surveillance.
According to Gesch, companies were drawn to the arrangement because it was an “opportunity to serve their country” and seemed like a lucrative “money maker.”
He was even able to convince some government officials of the task force’s existence. They agreed to meet with the contractors paying his salaries in government facilities, only giving his supposed task force more credibility.
There was only one problem. Prosecutors say it all was a lie.
While it was true that Courtney had served in the National Guard, it wasn’t until after the Gulf War, and he had never seen any combat. He had also never worked in the CIA or had any security clearances.
Courtney’s ruse was so convincing that when federal investigators began to look into his activities, some of the companies refused to cooperate in fear that they could be jeopardizing national security and one government official even tried to shut down the investigation.
“There are people to this day who have refused to speak to the investigators of this case, because they believe that this is all classified,” Burke said. “Just to be clear, those people are crazy. There is no other secret program that he was a part of that we burned or that we accidentally stumbled into.”
The law finally caught up with Courtney in June of 2020. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud and he was sentenced to seven years behind bars.
The conviction also cost Courtney his marriage.
“It’s hard to grasp the reality of it all and how it played a role in my life and where it left me and our children now,” Pierson said. “We’re still healing from it and trying to figure out how to move on from it.”
To learn more, tune in to "American Greed" Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on CNBC.