The Mysteries of the House IT Scandal

It’s the Washington conspiracy that barely speaks its name. And unlike the incandescent “Russian interference” scandal dominating the news for well over a year, this one has the potential to cause grave harm to our national security. The maypole of this “other” conspiracy is a Pakistan-born immigrant, Imran Awan, aided by extended family and friends. As information technology security specialists for dozens of Democrats in the House of Representatives, the family allegedly used their ample incomes from their Capitol Hill jobs and various shady side businesses to assist the Pakistani government. Mr. Awan was arrested by the FBI nearly a year ago. He and his wife would be indicted for bank fraud soon after. They now also need to investigated for the possibility of espionage. Such a probe must shine a light not only on the Awans but also on their main enabler, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. (in photo).

Thanks to the political blog site, The Daily Caller, and especially its lead investigative reporter on this issue, Luke Rosiak, there is now a large amount of information on the unfolding Awan saga. Examining the evidence, it is frankly alarming that a Pakistani immigrant family for years may have operated a spy ring under congressional cover, compromising American security in the process. That few people have called for an investigation of this family on this premise underscores a paralysis in our political culture with respect to ethnicity, religion, immigration and national interest.

It was February 2, 2017. And House of Representatives Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving had an announcement to make. He was removing the Awan family’s access to the House computer server network. He had good reason for taking such action. In a letter the next day to the Committee on House Administration, he explained:

Based upon the evidence gathered to this point, we have concluded the employees are an ongoing and serious risk to the House of Representatives, possibly threatening the integrity of our information systems and thereby members’ capacity to serve constituents…This could have resulted in Member data being accessed by someone unknown and unauthorized by the offices.

The announcement grew out of a probe led by House Office of Inspector General Michael Ptasienski, who had informed the committee that Imran Awan may have committed cybersecurity violations and stolen material evidence. His office’s semiannual report for the period April 1-September 30, 2016 had concluded that Imran Awan, without authorization, had extracted data from the House of Representatives computer network, possibly creating breaches in U.S. security. Awan had the ability to do so. “System administrators hold the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ meaning they can create accounts, grant access, view, download, update or delete almost any electronic information within an office,” Ptasienski stated in testimony this March before the Committee on House Administration. “Because of this high-level access, a rogue system administrator could inflict considerable damage.”

Imran Awan, whose salary as an IT administrator eventually reached about $165,000 a year, appears to have been rogue-in-chief. U.S. Capitol Police began investigating his finances in April 2016 and movements a half-year later in October. Police discovered, among other things, that on January 18, 2017 Mr. Awan had wired nearly $300,000 to Pakistan. Yet that April, two months after the yanking of his House server access, he unintentionally had left a token of his presence. Capitol Police discovered an unattended bag in a small room in a congressional building. Inside the bag was a laptop computer with the username “RepDWS.” It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the laptop belonged to Imran Awan, as it had copies of his driver’s license, congressional ID and a Pakistani ID. The bag also contained composition notebooks with handwritten notes that read “attorney client privilege” and letters addressed to prosecutors. The initials “DWS” on the laptop almost assuredly stood for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., his main sponsor. According to The Daily Caller, Awan had backdoor access to the congressional network as late as that August via the email account, established in the name of Nathaniel Bennett, an intelligence specialist for Rep. Andrew Carson, D-Ind.

As evidence of wrongdoing, this discovery was pure gold. By any reasonable assessment, Imran Awan, born in 1980 and employed by the House of Representatives since 2004 (the year he became a U.S. citizen), had “higher-ups” looking out for him. And those connections helped his family members over the years also find work as House tech support administrators. They included Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi; his brothers Abid Awan and Jamal Awan; Abid Awan’s Ukraine-born wife Natalia Sova, who had left the U.S. before the February 2017 ban; and Rao Abbas, a man whose most recent employment was at a McDonald’s restaurant. There was substantial evidence that Imran and his family used their jobs as a cover for darker purposes. His stepmother, Samina Gilani, has stated that he pressured Pakistani immigrants into doing certain unspecified things.

The money was good. During 2009-17 Imran Awan and family received a combined $4 million to $7 million (estimates vary) for their services. One reputable source believes that his real employer all along was the government of Pakistan. “Based on the modest way Awan was living,” said Wayne Black, a private investigator and former supervisor for the public corruption unit under Florida Attorney General Janet Reno (i.e., prior to her becoming U.S. Attorney General), “it is my opinion that he was sending most of his money to a group or criminal organization that could very well be connected with the Pakistani government.” Imran Awan’s father, though not a congressional information technology administrator, may have served as a go-between. According to Luke Rosiak of The Daily Caller, various persons witnessed him handing over a USB computer drive to a powerful former Pakistani government official.

Imran Awan would be arrested by FBI agents for a separate but likely related crime last July 24 at Dulles International Airport while attempting to board a jet bound for Lahore, Pakistan where he would join his wife and children. Prosecutors would charge the Awans in August with four counts of fraud for making false statements to a credit union in order to obtain $283,000 they had wired to Pakistan a half-year earlier. Conveniently, the cell phone Imran Awan had been carrying at the airport had potentially incriminating information deleted. The Awans reportedly are working out an immunity plea deal set for a July 3 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia. If they do plead guilty, this should not be the end of this saga. Our government must initiate a full-scale investigation into espionage.

Such action is absolutely necessary. There are a host of issues that federal investigators must consider.

How did Awan family members manage to avoid a background prior to assuming their jobs as House information technology specialists? One would think that an extended family of Pakistani Muslims with multiple criminal convictions and outstanding lawsuits would be about the last people in the world to trust with access to sensitive information about dozens of members of Congress. Unfortunately, Democratic lawmakers trusted them with an almost blind devotion. There were 192 Democratic Party members in the House of Representatives at the start of the current (115th) Congress; fully 44 had approved Imran Awan and/or associates as their tech support people. As The Daily Caller reported in early April of this year, none had conducted a background check. While it is true that a background check is not as thorough as a national security clearance, such inaction represented a severe lapse in due diligence all the same. And it likely was in part the result of pressure from a colleague, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, now in her seventh term, represents a large portion of Miami-Dade County. She’s also a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill. For over five years, during May 2011-July 2016, she chaired the Democratic National Committee. More apropos, and as indicated earlier, she almost certainly was the “RepDWS” indicated on Imran Awan’s laptop. She repeatedly has denounced calls for investigating the Awans as “profiling.” Even after investigators found smashed hard drives at Imran’s Awan’s home, she refused to fire him. Indeed, after House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving barred Awan from server access, she designated him as an “advisor” to keep him on the payroll. The family had made quite a mark at that point. In tracking the Awans’ network usage, the House Office of Inspector General report found massive data flows; in one case, there were over 5,700 logins by five Awan associates on a single server belonging to then-Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., now that state’s attorney general.

Imran Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi, has the support from an ally of Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., easily one of the most corrupt members of Congress in recent memory. Despite being subject to the February 2, 2017 ban on House server access along with her husband, she remained on Meeks’ payroll until that March 17, a dozen days after Alvi flew to Pakistan with the couple’s three children while carrying $12,400 in cash in a suitcase. It almost defies explanation that U.S. Customs agents, after briefly detaining her, allowed her to board the jet. It is a felony to move more than $10,000 in U.S. currency out of the country without completing the requisite forms, something that she apparently failed to do. Mrs. Alvi’s last day on the job, noted the blog site Politico, was February 27. Thus, for over two more weeks she was a ghost employee of Meeks.

All of this is a touchy subject for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. According to an unnamed House employee quoted in The Daily Caller, once the House of Representatives’ Office of Inspector General had concluded that Awan gained unauthorized access to House servers, she became “frantic, not normal.” She proceeded to lean hard on House officials to quash any investigation. She hired the House’s former top lawyer, Bill Pittard, to block prosecutors from reviewing evidence. Rep. Wasserman Schultz believes that Awan was fired on the basis of his ethnic background. “I had grave concerns about his due process rights being violated,” she said. “When their investigation was reviewed with me, I was presented with no evidence of anything that they were being investigated for. And so that, in me, gave me great concern that his due process rights were being violated. That there were racial and ethnic profiling concerns that I had.”

Ironically, Rep. Wasserman Schultz’ lax attitude on congressional cybersecurity would be her downfall as chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. She resigned in late July 2016 in the wake of a widely-publicized server breach exposing DNC emails published by Wikileaks. The congresswoman has seemed oblivious to the possibility that some people who emigrate to America seek to do us harm. It is telling that Rep. Meeks, like Rep. Wasserman Schultz, has raised the specter of possible anti-Middle Eastern and anti-Muslim bias as a pretext for discouraging investigations of the Awans. Abid Awan, Imran’s brother, himself worked for a while under Meeks, not to mention former Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz. Abid Awan also helped his wife, Natalia Sova, obtain jobs as a tech support provider for Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.

What was the nature of Abid Awan’s car dealership? The Awan family operated a number of side enterprises, none of them reputable. One was a used car dealership in Falls Church, Virginia. The firm, Cars International LLC, later renamed Cars International A, LLC, had an unorthodox method of generating sales. If a prospective buyer showed up, wrote The Daily Caller’s Luke Rosiak last December, Abid Awan would go across the street to another dealership, AAA Motors, find a car, and drive it back. According to the Pakistan-born proprietor of AAA Motors, Nasir Khattak, named as the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Imran Awan in Fairfax County, Va. Circuit Court: “There was no documentation…If you go and try to dissect, you will not be able to make any sense of them because there were many, dozens and dozens, of cars transferred between the two dealerships and between other people.” Abid Awan declared bankruptcy in 2010 as a means of discharging debt incurred by the dealership. That there were five outstanding lawsuits for fraud filed by customers didn’t help.

In testimony during an April 6, 2011 deposition, Khattak stated that though he and Abid Awan were 50/50 owners, Awan managed all day-to-day operations; Khattak’s role was limited to that of investor. Indeed, Khattak sacrificed his own business for the good of Awan’s. “All of those transactions were to support Cars International A from AAA Motors,” he said. “I did not make any money from my dealership because my resources were supporting Cars International A.” In the background the whole time, Imran Awan controlled the show. “It was Imram Awan who was running the business in full control,” asserted Khattak, adding that Awan kept rather than repaid a $100,000 loan from Ali Al-Attar, a Baghdad-born physician living in America. Dr. Al-Attar had operated a private practice in Greenbelt, Maryland until he fled the country to avoid arrest for health care fraud in the sum of at least $2.3 million. A former CIA official, Philip Giraldi, observed him in late 2012 in Beirut “conversing with a Hezbollah official” shortly after loaning Awan the $100,000.

Was there an ulterior motive behind the Awans’ housing ventures in the U.S.? The Awan family invested heavily in residential real estate here. They would buy Washington, D.C.-area homes with little money down and then rent them out. According to a number of tenants, the Awans would insist that all rental payments and security deposits be in cash. Such a business practice should raise a red flag. Any time a landlord insists on cash-only transactions, at minimum he or she is probably trying to evade property and income taxes, and possibly something more. “If they were collecting cash with no lease, how do we know they have been reporting it?,” asked late NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm. “It may be the money was moved to family in Pakistan or otherwise kept offshore. We just don’t know.” The Awan family wasn’t keen on providing documentation for home rentals any more than for car sales.

What is the connection between the Awans’ corrupt property deals in Pakistan and their work on Capitol Hill as IT specialists? The Awan family appeared to be knee-deep in real estate fraud in their homeland. Rashid Minhas, former business partner of Awan patriarch Haji Ashraf Awan, who died in January 2017, in somewhat broken English recently gave an account of how the Awans pulled off a lucrative scam:

My brothers brought all customers and investors. I stay in Pakistan March 2006 to August 2006 and sold about 79 percent town name Gulshan-e-Moin (sic). After sold that town end of 2006, we purchased another land and sold 40 percent land to Faisalbad Agriculture University staff…In 2007 Awan family showed me dirty blood in their body, and from 37 acres they only transfer 1,000 square feet, oh yes, only 1,000 square feet in my name, and I was third 34 percent partner.

Even after Minhas ended his role in the partnership, the Awan family continued to scam people. They subdivided the land and sold a portion to the faculty of the university to build a housing complex for professors. Dr. Zafar Iqbal, a Faisalbad faculty member, told The Daily Caller in an interview that his group paid Haji Awan for the land but never received a deed to the property. They have been fighting Haji and Imran Awan for years over that. When Haji Ashraf Awan died, his son Imran traveled to Pakistan and where he was confronted by angry faculty members. Imran warned them that he “has got powerful political connections in Pakistan and in the U.S.” Though he promised to provide a refund, he has yet to do so.

What was the basis for Imran Awan’s claim to having political control over America? According to an article published by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the Awan brothers’ father handed over a USB computer drive to Rehman Malik, a member of the Pakistani Senate until his resignation in July 2012. Malik previously had headed a Pakistani intelligence agency and the security detail for late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who had been assassinated in December 2007. The source of this information, the elder Awan’s former business partner, Rashid Minhas, asserted that Imran Awan boasted of having the power to “change the U.S. president.” Imran’s exact words, said Minhas, were, “See how I control the White House on my fingertip?” Haji Awan was a proud father. “My son own (sic) White House in D.C.,” he would brag to fellow Pakistanis back home. “I am kingmaker.”

What was the basis for such a grandiose claim? Rashid Minhas stated that his brother, Abdul Razzaq, witnessed the USB drive transfer. Something very significant must have been going down because four Pakistani intelligence agents were present. Rashid Minhas did not specify what information was on the USB. And he hasn’t been talkative as of late. That may have something to do with his own corruption. According to court documents, Minhas set up a network of travel agencies that sold plane tickets to Saudi Arabia to American Muslims to attend a Hajj (i.e., the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must make at least once in their lives). But instead of providing tickets, he sent buyers this note: “Allah didn’t invite you. That’s why you guys didn’t go.” If God wasn’t in a good mood, neither were federal prosecutors. Minhas, who had pulled in $700,000 from the scam, would be arrested for fraud in December 2014 and eventually sentenced to prison.

Why did the investigation and indictment of Imran Awan and his wife focus solely on bank fraud? Capitol Police began monitoring Imran Awan’s movements in October 2016, but did not arrest him until July 2017, and then only for bank fraud, not for criminal actions identified by the House Office of Inspector General. The Awan family’s behavior suggests they used their tech support jobs and side businesses as fronts for spying for Pakistan. Bank fraud, in other words, was an ancillary offense. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy last August noted in National Review Online that the indictment makes no mention of any flight to Pakistan and states that the financial crimes occurred “from on or about December 12, 2016 through on or about February 27, 2017.” This time frame, McCarthy emphasizes, was months before the attempted July 2017 plane flight by Imran Awan.

McCarthy elaborated on the inability of federal prosecutors to connect the dots:

Well, here’s the peculiar thing about the Justice Department’s indictment of Imran Awan and Hina Alvi, the alleged fraudster couple who doubled as IT whizzes for Debbie Wasserman Schultz and many other congressional Democrats: There’s not a word in it about flight to Pakistan. The indictment undertakes to describe in detail four counts of bank-fraud conspiracy, false statements on credit applications, and unlawful monetary transactions, yet leaves out the most damning evidence of guilt.

In fact, the indictment appears to go out of its way not to mention it.

Why would prosecutors leave that out of their indictment? Why give Awan’s defense a basis to claim that, since the indictment does not allege anything about flight to Pakistan, the court should bar any mention of it during the trial? In fact, quite apart from the manifest case-related reasons to plead instances of flight, a competent prosecutor would have included them in the indictment simply to underscore that Awan is a flight risk who should have onerous bail conditions or even be detained pretrial.

These are sensible questions for federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies if and when they investigate the couple for spying.

How did Imran Awan come to be represented by a lawyer who is close to both Bill and Hillary Clinton? Mr. Awan, so far as one knows, does not know the Clintons personally. But his chief protector, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, certainly does. The Florida congresswoman was an outspoken ally of Hillary Clinton during her 2008 and 2016 presidential runs. And Awan’s attorney, Christopher Gowen, is also a former employee and longtime friend of the Clintons. He began his legal career on Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ home turf as a Miami-Dade County public defender. Later he would be a founding partner of Gowen Silva & Winograd, a law firm with offices in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. His most famous (or infamous) highlight as a litigator was his defense of a fellow lawyer, Steven Donziger, who, according to a federal district court, had submitted fraudulent evidence in order to win a $9.5 billion class-action suit on behalf of several Ecuadorean citizens against Chevron; the U.S. Supreme Court last June ruled against Donziger in affirming the judgment of his unsuccessful appeal. Gowen during the George W. Bush years worked as a travel aide for Bill Clinton and for then-Senator Hillary Clinton. He also was a fact checker for Bill Clinton’s 2004 presidential memoir, My Life, and the principal advance man for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Christopher Gowen speaks like a true believer. Last July he described Imran Awan’s arrest as “clearly a right-wing media-driven prosecution by a United States Attorney’s Office that wants to prosecute people for working while Muslim.” In rebuking a charge by Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Tex., Gowen piously snarled, “The outrageous conspiracy theorists driving a false narrative through the press should be reminded that Imran Awan is a husband and a father, not a political pawn.” Actually, the problem is that Awan is a con artist and possibly a spy for the Pakistani government. That’s behavior that would get any non-Muslim plenty of attention as well. Being a family man does not immunize someone from the consequences of criminal behavior.

Is there another story lurking behind Imran Awan’s abuse of his two wives? That’s right, he has a second wife. In the context of Islamic law, a man may have as many as four wives. In the context of U.S. law, that makes him a bigamist. Both of Awan’s wives are Pakistani nationals residing in Virginia. The aforementioned Hina Alvi is a first cousin (first-cousin marriages are very common in Pakistan, a fact Americans are not supposed to notice). The other wife was one Sumaira Siddique. On the basis of information published in The Daily Caller earlier this month Imran Awan has established himself as an abuser of each.

In the case of Hina Alvi, court documents filed in Pakistan last September indicate that Imran Awan on at least one occasion threatened physical violence against her as a means of asserting control. Of this case, not much is known. In the case of Sumaira Siddique, however, Fairfax County, Va. police records reveal multiple restraining orders against Mr. Awan. On three separate occasions, police officers responded to domestic violence calls at the couple’s residence – in October 2015, November 2015 and July 2016. In the first incident, the cops noticed a “cut on stomach and arm” of Mrs. Awan/Siddique. During the third incident, she told police that her husband “treat her bad and keep her like a slave.” Two weeks later, with Siddique having traveled to Pakistan to live with her father, one or more gunmen fired multiple bullets at their home. A police report filed on August 3 by Siddique’s father indicated that she was inside the house with him at the time. Coincidentally or not, the incident occurred only days after the House Inspector General had testified before the Committee on House Administration that her husband may have committed cybersecurity violations. Pakistani police have yet to take action in identifying the suspect despite a request to do so by the U.S. embassy in Pakistan.

Imran Awan apparently hasn’t limited his violence to his marriages. In court papers filed in the United States in April 2017, his stepmother (i.e., his late father’s wife), Samina Gilani, alleged that Imran vowed he would “do harm to me and my family back in Pakistan and one of my cousins here in Baltimore.” She also alleged that Awan “threatened that he has the power to kidnap my family members back in Pakistan.” Gilani added that Awan took Sumaira Siddique’s marriage license away from her so as to make her completely dependent upon him. Mr. Awan also apparently has abused a Pakistani girlfriend, Salam Chaudry. Police, responding to a domestic dispute call in December 2015, found dried blood on Ms. Chaudry.

Why have most news media downplayed or ignored this story? If the allegations surrounding Imran Awan and his extended family members are true, they point to a far more egregious security breach than the “Russian interference” in the 2016 presidential election supposedly approved by victorious candidate Donald Trump and his top aides. The best explanation is that the press, given its prevailing leftward tilt, would prefer that this story die on the vine. To them, following through on the possibility that the Awan family was spying on behalf of the government of Pakistan might well benefit the Trump administration. Lest one forget, at the start of this year, the State Department announced a suspension of most U.S. military aid to Pakistan, a sum estimated at $1.3 billion. The move was overdue. Despite the common pretense that the two nations are allies in fighting Islamic terrorism, the truth is their government long has enabled the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Why aren’t Republican leaders demanding an investigation? This is perhaps the most depressing aspect of this saga. It is understandable that the 44 House Democrats who employed the Awans’ IT services don’t want the full details of this story known. If information on their servers are in the hands of the Pakistanis, these lawmakers could be subject to blackmail at any time. Even Democrats who never used the services of the Awan clan are not likely to pipe up. To demand accountability would be to risk retaliation by party leaders. Republican lawmakers, by contrast, have no excuse to be silent. Yet silence is what they mainly have offered. Last October 10, several members of the Right-leaning House Freedom Caucus held an informal hearing on the Awans’ possible breaches of national security. The lead witness, The Daily Caller’s Luke Rosiak, later wrote of an “extraordinary level of silence from official channels.” Perhaps they, too, were afraid of being blackmailed. Equally plausibly, like the Democrats, Republican congressmen seem fearful of being accused of supporting religious or ethnic “profiling.” Congress seems to have a case of political Stockholm syndrome.

Let us sum up. Almost everything about this case stinks. What we have here is an extended family of crooks whose loyalty is to an untrustworthy foreign power. And in their corner is a contingent of U.S. lawmakers eager to enable them. In their zeal to obtain money and influence, the Awan family, Imran Awan in particular, may have placed many of our elected representatives at the mercy of the Pakistani government. That this family is corrupt is virtually indisputable. The issue now is whether they are also spies. Congress and law enforcement agencies must probe this possibility to its logical conclusion and ignore the red herring of “Islamophobia.” It is not a phobia to insist that our lawmakers be publicly accountable for those who they put on their payrolls.

Postscript: On July 3, as expected, Imran Awan and his wife, Hina Alvi, pleaded guilty in District of Columbia federal court to bank fraud. Weeks later, on August 21, he was sentenced to three months of supervised release plus time served. In handing down such a light sentence, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ignored all sound evidence pointing to a conspiracy. Indeed, she denounced “an unbelievable onslaught of scurrilous media attacks” on the Awan family. It is clear that the court, not to mention prosecutors, wanted this case to disappear as quickly as possible.