Federal prosecutor Heidi Boutros Gesch (Plan II and Government ’04) is on the case.
One of Heidi Boutros Gesch’s first cases as a prosecutor for the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) involved going after police officers who worked with a drug dealer to rob other drug dealers. She was based in the DOJ’s offices in Washington D.C., but the case was in Puerto Rico. “Our cases were based on the type of crime, not the geography,” said Gesch, who graduated from The University of Texas at Austin in 2004 with degrees in government and Plan II Honors.
“The cops went in with a fake search warrant, under the premise of seizing the drugs as evidence of a crime,” she said. “Their drug dealer accomplice was with them, in a police uniform. They took the drugs, and the drug dealer sold them, giving the cops a cut. We were preparing for a trial, but the defendants ended up pleading guilty before trial.”*
This kind of work, which Boutros Gesch did for seven years before transferring over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, was the culmination of a road that began, in a sense, in her parents’ native country of Egypt.
“My father left in no small part because he was tired of the injustice,” said Boutros Gesch. “There was the neglect and oppression and corruption from the government. There was also the more personal prejudice he faced as a religious minority, a Christian, in Egypt.”
Her father left Egypt when he was 18, and did most of his medical training elsewhere in the Middle East before immigrating to the U.S., where he did his residency and worked for many decades as a cardiologist. Boutros Gesch’s mother, also a doctor, followed a number of years later.
Gesch and her brother were raised in Dallas, in a home that strongly emphasized the importance of education. “I was a very stressed out but high achieving high schooler,” she recently told me over zoom from her home in Alexandria, Virginia. “I was also really influenced by my parents’ stories of injustice in Egypt, which I think led to my own interest in the justice system.”
Boutros Gesch wasn’t planning to attend UT Austin. She had her heart set on the Ivy League.
She applied, though, and her acceptance came with an invitation to apply for the prestigious Dedman Distinguished Scholars Program, which would cover all four years of room and board if she received it. The Dedman recruitment weekend at UT, in the spring of 2000, changed the calculus of her decision.
“I had been accepted to Yale as well, but I liked UT so much I was thinking of coming even if I didn’t get the scholarship,” said Boutros Gesch. When she was notified that she’d received the Dedman Scholarship, soon after, it sealed the deal. And she made the most of her decision. While at UT, in part thanks to further support from the Dedman Program, Boutros Gesch was able to pursue her interest in international human rights on a number of fronts and in a number of countries. She interned with the International Justice Mission in India, worked on the Slobodan Milosevic trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, and reported on prison conditions in Russia for the Moscow Center for Prison Reform.
After graduating, she went to work for the FBI as an intelligence analyst, focusing primarily on analyzing patterns of drug trafficking and money laundering. While at the FBI, she applied for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, hoping to study in England. On her second try, she won the Marshall and went to Oxford University to study international relations. From Oxford, where she earned an MPhil in international relations, she went straight to Yale Law School. “I thought I wanted to do international human rights law, but the more I researched it, the more it seemed like there wasn’t a path directly into that field. The people who got those jobs–for instance at international human rights tribunals–tended to spend many years building a career as prosecutors in their own countries. Then once they had that experience they transitioned to the international work. That was how I initially got interested in being a prosecutor.”
After Yale, she spent a year clerking for a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., and then went to work at the DOJ through the Attorney General’s Honors Program, which recruits recent law school graduates to work as federal prosecutors. After interviewing with a number of sections within the criminal division, she ended up being appointed to the Public Integrity Section, which deals with federal crimes related to public corruption.
“The Public Integrity section prosecutes people at all levels of government—anyone from governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, whose case ended up in the Supreme Court,” said Boutros Gesch, “all the way down to local sheriffs and low-level government employees who are taking bribes in exchange for contracts. I had all kinds of cases.”
Perhaps her most fascinating case, which she started when she was with Public Integrity and finished as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, involved prosecuting Garrison Courtney, a former DEA public affairs officer who pretended to be a covert CIA operative in order to defraud various companies out of millions of dollars. “He convinced these companies, most of whom were government contractors, that he needed ‘cover employment’ in order to do his covert ops stuff,” says Boutros Gesch. “He told them needed a no-work job that made it look like he worked with them.”
Courtney, she said, was brilliant at playing the part of a government spook. He would pat people down to make sure they weren’t carrying guns. He would advise his marks on how to travel to meetings so as to evade surveillance. He’d dangle the prospect of future big dollar contracts with government. He told stories about how he had been poisoned by the Chinese with ricin, how he had hundreds of confirmed kills in combat. He even persuaded some government officials to let him use secure facilities for meetings. “It was a four-million-dollar fraud,” said Boutros Gesch.
Although she and her colleagues were ultimately able to assemble a pretty overwhelming case against Courtney, which resulted in seven years in prison, it wasn’t always easy. “He made sure everyone signed these scary sounding non-disclosure agreements,” she remembered. “There were some people who wouldn’t talk to us, out of fear of breaking them, even when we assured them that he wasn’t a real CIA agent, that it was all a big fraud. He’d prepared them for that, told them that what he was doing was so secretive that even the FBI didn’t know about it. He even had public officials contact the FBI, saying they needed to stand down, that they were going to expose this top-secret program that was doing essential intelligence gathering.”
Reflecting on her work as a prosecutor, Boutros Gesch remains grateful to the College of Liberal Arts, both for the education it provided and for the Dedman Scholarship. “It is a real gift to have gone to UT, and to have been able to graduate without debt,” she said. That lack of debt played an important role, she said, in allowing her to pursue a career in the public sector.
Although she is open to the prospect of doing some international law, at some point in the future, she has no immediate plans to pursue that, and continues to love the work she does here in the U.S. “I really like the victim and witness interviews. I like getting to know the people, the players involved, building rapport with them, confronting them if they’re lying.” She enjoys presenting to juries, both the performative aspect of it and the narrative aspect, which requires distilling something that is very complex down to a simple storyline that is both clear and emotionally resonant. Underlying all the different aspects of the job is a continued commitment to, and gratitude for, our justice system.
“My job isn’t to convict people, nor to bring every case I can,” she said, “but to do justice.”
*All the quotations in this piece reflect the perspective of Heidi Boutros Gesch and not the U.S. Department of Justice.