House Democrats face a brewing IT scandal
Why is Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.) so worried about a laptop computer that she claims she has never seen before? So worried, in fact, that she has spent five months trying to block investigators from searching it?
Investigators found the laptop on Capitol Hill along with other intriguing items tied to a potentially explosive scandal that the mainstream media seem determined not to cover. The probe, now being led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, centers on a family of Pakistani Americans, alleged fraudsters who were hired as information-technology specialists by Wasserman Schultz and scores of other House Democrats.
In early February, after weeks of investigation, Capitol security agents informed members of Congress that access to the House Internet system would henceforth be denied to Imran Awan, his wife Hina Alvi, his brothers Abid and Jamal Awan, Abid’s wife, and at least one of their acquaintances. The agents had concluded that these suspects were invading members’ computers without authorization, transferring files to remote servers that they controlled, and engaging in procurement fraud and the theft of computer equipment, including that of hard drives that they smashed into bits of bytes upon realizing they were under investigation.
The apparent ringleader, 37-year-old Imran Awan, had been doing IT work for House Democrats — several at a time — for 13 years. First retained by Florida congressman Robert Wexler in 2004, he joined Wasserman Schultz’s staff the next year, her freshman term. Gradually, other family members were brought on board.
Congressional staffers earn modest taxpayer-subsidized salaries, with IT posts among the least well compensated, in the low $30,000 range per annum. Yet Awan clan members, who worked for about 80 different Democratic lawmakers over time, were pulling down more than five times that amount — youngest brother Jamal, for example, was soon taking home about $160,000 a year after being brought into the arrangement as a 20-year-old in 2014. The Daily Caller’s Luke Rosiak, who has reported extensively on the story, calculates that just since 2009, the family raked in over $4 million.
There are indications that some of their positions were sinecures. Some of the Awan clan were rarely seen on Capitol Hill, though mounting evidence shows they had thriving outside business interests, including real-estate and automobile concerns beclouded by suspicions of financial fraud. The ongoing investigation, moreover, is auditing exorbitant losses of public funds on missing House computer equipment. In a single instance in 2016, the office of Representative Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.), which retained Imran and Abid Awan, wrote off $120,000.
Alerted in February to cyber-security breaches, Democratic lawmakers promptly cut ties with the Awans. All but two Democrats, that is: New York’s Gregory Meeks and Wasserman Schultz.
Meeks kept Hina Alvi (Imran Awan’s wife) on the payroll for the rest of the month. She used that time to pack up her household, tie up financial loose ends, and abruptly yank her three young daughters out of school, fleeing with them to Pakistan on March 5.
By the time Alvi left, she and her husband had sent ahead nearly $300,000, much of it now traced to a fraudulent loan from the Congressional Federal Credit Union. Imran Awan had pretended to be his wife in a phone call with the credit union. Told that the couple’s proffered reason for the loan — “funeral arrangements” — would not be approved, “Mrs.” Awan repurposed without missing a beat, claiming to be “buying property.” Asking no more questions, the credit union wired the money, from Capitol Hill to, yes, Pakistan.
Stranger still: Investigators were on to the Awans by then and raced to Dulles airport upon learning that Alvi was leaving. Yet the FBI agents did not stop her from boarding her flight to Qatar (with a connection to Pakistan), notwithstanding their belief that she had no intention to return, and despite the fact that they had a basis on which to detain her. Besides the already emergent evidence of fraud and cyber hijinks, agents searched her luggage and found $12,400 in cash. It is a felony to carry more than $10,000 in U.S. currency out of the country unless one files a report describing the ownership and provenance of the funds. There is no indication in the reporting that Alvi filed the required paperwork; if she had, she’d inevitably have made false statements, also a felony.
Meanwhile, in spite of the February security alert, indications of fraud, and news of Alvi’s flight from the country, Wasserman Schultz kept Imran Awan on the payroll for nearly seven additional months — even though he was banned from the House Internet system and thus not authorized to do the job for which he’d been hired. When called on it by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, she absurdly claimed to be concerned that Awan, a Muslim, was being religiously profiled. Wasserman Schultz did not fire Awan until July 25. That was the day after he was arrested by the FBI at Dulles airport, attempting to flee via the same route his wife had taken.
Awan and Alvi were finally indicted in mid August. The indictment is peculiar: four counts of financial fraud, centering on bilking the credit union and drawn so narrowly that they omit what any prosecutor would regard as the best evidence in the case: viz., the efforts of the two defendants to flee to the foreign country to which they had sent the money.
Most notable: There is no mention of information theft from House members, nor any allusion to the other Awan-clan schemers implicated in it. Manifestly, the FBI is continuing to probe the security breaches. They raise alarming possibilities that sensitive House communications have been compromised and that blackmail fodder might have had something to do with why the Awans were hired en masse, retained for years, and so lavishly compensated despite giving off flashing-neon danger warnings.
Are the long-overdue fraud charges an attempt to squeeze Awan into cooperating? Very little information about the case has been made public by the Justice Department. That is to be expected, of course, when there is a continuing investigation — even if it weren’t one in which Democrats could be profoundly embarrassed, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case is an Obama holdover, and a senior prosecutor in the office just happens to be the younger brother of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Which brings us back to that laptop. Ever since it was seized on April 6, Wasserman Schultz has made herculean efforts to prevent investigators from searching it. Clearly, Awan was using the computer, although it was purchased through Wasserman Schultz’s office — when investigators turned it on, the home-screen initials read “RepDWS.” As Rosiak has reported, the laptop was found in a cranny of the House’s Rayburn office building (Wasserman Schultz’s office is in the Longworth building). Alongside it were Awan’s Pakistani identification card, copies of his House ID badge and driver’s license, notebooks annotated with the heading “attorney client privilege,” and letters addressed to the U.S. attorney. The contents of the notebooks and letters have not been disclosed.
Initially, Wasserman Schultz demanded that the Capitol Police surrender the laptop to her on the ground that it was the lost equipment of “a member” — presumably her. During a hearing on the Capitol Police’s budget, she heavy-handedly threatened “consequences” if the agency did not turn over the laptop to her. The police refused because of its patent relevance to the Awan investigation. Wasserman Schultz continued to thwart investigators, however, claiming the laptop might be immune from investigation under congressional speech-and-debate immunity. After Awan was arrested, she changed tack, conceding that the laptop was not hers and maintaining that she neither had seen it before nor had knowledge of its contents. Yet, while acknowledging that the laptop belonged to Awan, she claimed a proprietary interest owing to its purchase with public funds for the equipping of her congressional office.
Normally, if there is an immunity issue based on the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause, it is flagged by staff counsel for the House. Wasserman Schultz, however, has recently retained a private attorney — William Pittard, former acting general counsel of the House — to argue that the computer must not be searched.
Why is the congresswoman interfering with the investigation? Having been humiliated as Democratic National Committee chairwoman when DNC servers were hacked and emails showing her pro-Clinton bias exposed during the 2016 campaign, one might think she of all people would be encouraging a cyber-security probe. Of course, Awan was her IT guy during that debacle.
The tea leaves suggest the Awans may be of a mind to cooperate with investigators. The Washington Examiner reports that Alvi is negotiating with prosecutors a deal in which she would return to the United States, surrender on the charges, and remain free on bail but subject to severe travel restrictions. As for her husband, who is on bail with electronic monitoring, speculation about a possible plea deal with cooperation has been heavy. It is fueled by the manner in which Awan, a sophisticated actor, neatly packaged the laptop with his identification and missives to the prosecutor.
Could Awan have wanted investigators to find it? Makes one wonder what could be in it, and why Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t want the FBI to find out.