- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The arrest of a Pakistan-bound information technology staffer who worked for U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch and several other House Democrats has heightened cyber security criticism of Wasserman Schultz and brought accusations of Islamophobia from the defendant’s attorney.
Imran Awan and at least four other Democratic staffers had their access to the House computer and email systems blocked in February as they came under investigation by the U.S. Capitol Police. Awan’s attorney said the probe appeared to arise from from questions about procurement forms and not any allegations of hacking. Still, Capitol Police advised House staffers at the time to “update their security settings as a best practice.”
Awan and the other staffers under investigation each made about $160,000 a year as “shared employees” who drew pay from the office budgets of multiple Democratic House members. In addition to Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, and Deutch, D-Boca Raton, their employers included U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, and former U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, and Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, who is now a 2018 Democratic candidate for governor.
None of the staffers has been charged with any offense except Awan, who was arrested on a bank fraud charge not directly related to his work as an IT consultant. Awan was arrested Monday night at Dulles Airport as he prepared to board a flight to Qatar with his native Pakistan as his final destination.
Awan entered a not guilty plea and the law firm defending him issued a statement casting Awan as the victim of “a frenzy of anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Awan’s attorney, Chris Gowen, said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post that his client and the other staffers had “no security clearance or access to confidential information.”
Aside from Awan, the staffers under investigation are his wife, Hina Alvi; his brothers, Abid Awan and Jamal Awan; and Rao Abbas, who is described as a friend of the Awans, according to Hill sources and published reports.
A day before Imran Awan’s arrest, the conservative Daily Caller reported that the FBI had “seized smashed computer hard drives” from a Northern Virginia house he owns. Gowen confirmed that agents took computers, but he said there was “nothing functional and nothing smashed.”
An FBI affidavit accuses Imran Awan of getting a $165,000 loan from the Congressional Federal Credit Union in January by falsely claiming a rental property he owns was his primary residence. After getting the loan, Awan wired $283,000 to two individuals in Pakistan, the affidavit says.
The affidavit also says Alvi, Imran Awan’s wife, left the U.S. for Pakistan in March. She was carrying more than $12,000 in cash and was accompanied by her three children after “abruptly” removing them from public schools in Northern Virginia, the affidavit says.
Gowen said neither Imran Awan nor Hina Alvi intended to leave the U.S. permanently.
Deutch paid Imran Awan for stints totalling about 10 months between 2012 and 2014. One of the first members of Congress to pay Awan was former Palm Beach County Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler. Wexler hired Awan around 2004 after he had provided IT services to House members as an employee of a private contractor, former Wexler chief of staff Eric Johnson said.
More recently, Deutch paid Abbas $8,550 last year for IT work. Deutch terminated him in February when Abbas lost his access to the House computer system.
Deutch declined comment on the IT staffers.
“There’s an ongoing investigation…that will be fully pursued, as it should,” Deutch said in an interview with The Post.
Abbas also received $33,000 in 2016 from Murphy, who left the House after a failed challenge of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in November 2016. Abbas’ employers this year included Crist, the former Florida governor elected to the House in 2016.
Abid Awan, one of Imran Awan’s brothers, was paid $20,000 in 2016 by Frankel. She fired him in February.
“We were one of 20+ Member offices that were using the services of Abid Awan to provide technical support for our computing technology,” Frankel spokeswoman Rachel Huxley-Cohen said. “When we were contacted about the investigation, our office immediately terminated the service. We have not since been informed of the details of the ongoing probe.”
Jamal Awan’s employers included Graham, who did not seek re-election in 2016 and launched a campaign for governor this year. Graham’s office paid Jamal Awan $20,000 in 2016.
Most of the House members who were paying Imran Awan and the others cut them off in February when the staffers came under investigation.
But Wasserman Schultz, whose 2016 resignation as Democratic National Committee chairwoman was triggered by the hacking of DNC emails, kept Awan on her payroll as a consultant until his arrest.
In May, Wasserman Schultz had a testy exchange with Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa over a laptop computer from her office that Capitol Police have been holding as part of the investigation.
“If the member owns the equipment and there is no ongoing case related to that member, then the equipment is supposed to be returned,” Wasserman Schultz told Verderosa during a hearing on the Capitol Police budget.
Verderosa said Wasserman Schultz was correct “in a general sense,” but “if it is subject to an ongoing investigation, there are additional things that need to be determined.”
A clearly displeased Wasserman Schultz then issued a warning to Verderosa.
“I think you’re violating the rules when you conduct your business that way and should expect that there would be consequences,” Wasserman Schultz said.
The exchange with the Capitol Police chief and her decision to pay Awan while he was under investigation have fueled criticism of Wasserman Schultz.
“We have to get to the bottom of this, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz has obstructed at every level on something that affects potentially our national security. So to have this gentlemen try and leave the country yesterday, and now we know there is bank fraud and we know he destroyed these hard drives…I mean, it is a long story but something we have to get to the bottom of,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel in Fox News interview this week.
Democrat Tim Canova, who challenged Wasserman Schultz in a 2016 primary and has opened a 2018 campaign against her, said in a fundraising email this week that the Awan matter raises the possibility of “massive cyber-security breaches.” He called on Wasserman Schultz to resign and accused her of “refusing to cooperate with the investigation and even obstructing investigators.”
Wasserman Schultz on Wednesday explained why she continued to employ Imran Awan while he was under investigation.
“After details of the investigation were reviewed with us, my office was provided no evidence to indicate that laws had been broken, which over time, raised troubling concerns about due process, fair treatment and potential ethnic and religious profiling,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement released by her office. “Upon learning of his arrest, he was terminated.”