The early story of Imran Awan reads like a storybook retelling of the American Dream—getting the chance to move to the United States at age 17 from Pakistan, starting at community college and working in fast food restaurants until he began studying information technology at Johns Hopkins University, and working his way up to a career in the Capitol building. At age 25, he started his first congressional IT job in the office of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Florida). Over the next decade, high-ranking Democratic Representatives employed Imran in greater numbers, including Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), and most notably former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida).
His services were in such high demand that he eventually found jobs for his wife, his two brothers, and a friend, all of whom worked part-time for various House Democrats as “shared employees.” (Shared employees work for various House Offices as needed by the Members they serve. The use of shared employees has come under scrutiny because these employees have light accountability and significant access to sensitive material.) While technically against House rules, in 2008 House Inspector General James J. Cornell testified that it was a commonplace practice.
In March 2016, the House Inspector General’s Office revealed that Awan bought almost $38,000 in equipment, paid for in installments below $500, apparently to avoid having the equipment logged in the House of Representatives’ inventory. Many of the items were delivered directly to his home. (This itself is not an unusual practice because deliveries to the Capitol building require extra security screenings.)
This behavior led the House Sergeant-at-Arms to tell Representatives five months later that they believed this was a case of possible procurement fraud.
By October, the Inspector General’s Office had discovered Awan and his family logged into a Democratic Caucus server over 5,700 times throughout the year. This is a serious violation of House IT policy since only one person—Awan’s wife—had authorization to access the server. This was when Capitol Police and the FBI took control of the investigation. Awan and his family lost access to the House of Representatives’ computer networks in February 2017, and they were eventually fired by the majority of their Democratic clients, except for Wasserman Schultz.
But why? Not only did Representative Wasserman Schultz keep employing Awan after he lost access to the House network, but she also waited until July 2017—after the Capitol Police arrested him—to fire him. Indeed, despite credible allegations against Awan, Wasserman Schultz allegedly threatened the Capitol Police chief with “consequences” during a House Appropriations Committee hearing after Capital Police seized one of Awan’s laptops.
Investigators also struggled to determine what information was going through the server to which Awan and his family had access. The contents of lawmakers’ internal communications are protected from investigation by the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution, which provides general civil and criminal immunity for all “legislative acts” made by Representatives. After conducting over 40 interviews, law enforcement found no evidence of tampering with the Democrats’ House server.
By early 2017, Awan appeared to be attempting a getaway. In January, he wired $283,000 from his Congressional Federal Credit Union account to two men in Pakistan under his wife’s name. According to the FBI’s affidavit, he originally requested it for “funeral arrangements” but was told that the reason might not work, so he changed it to “buying property.” In February, Awan abruptly rented out his house, in which the tenant discovered smashed computer equipment that Awan later tried to recover from the tenant—the equipment was seized by the FBI for its investigation in July just before Awan tried to flee the country.
When the Capitol Police and the FBI finally apprehended Awan, it was for bank fraud. Awan wrongly listed a rental property as collateral when applying for a home equity loan under his wife’s name—Awan’s January wire transfer to Pakistan included the money from the loan. But there was plenty of other suspicious activity. What about the smashed hard drives in his home? And also, why was he wiring money to Pakistan for a “funeral” as early as January? Furthermore, Awan’s lawyer, Chris Gowen, was a long-time lawyer for both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Awan initially pleaded not guilty to the charge of bank fraud, and argued that he was the victim of right-wing conspiracy theories and persecution by President Trump (who made Awan the subject of numerous tweets). He was never charged for any data leaking nor procurement fraud.
After nearly a year in court, he eventually made a plea agreement in July 2018, admitting guilt to committing bank fraud. Part of his plea agreement included a statement declaring, “The Government has uncovered no evidence that [Awan] violated federal law with respect to the House computer system,” which cleared Awan of any wrongdoing in relation to procurement fraud or leaking government (or DNC) data. Awan was subsequently only sentenced to time served and three months supervision. The Obama-appointed judge believed that Awan had been “the subject of harassment,” and gave him a lenient penalty because of that belief.
Was this a failure of the justice system, or a demonstration of its success? There are plenty of unanswered questions in this case: Why did Rep. Wasserman Schultz continue to protect Awan? How did a Clinton lawyer become his counsel? What evidence has been found that can prove any allegation besides bank fraud? While Awan may no longer work within the House of Representatives, his lawyer has said Awan may try to work in Silicon Valley. One thing is clear, however, if the House of Representatives adopted stricter hiring practices in IT and kept better track of its physical assets, then there might be answers to these questions.