The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-congressional IT staffer reaches plea deal that debunks conspiracy theories about illegal information access

Imran Awan, a Pakistani American information technology worker, worked for Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Imran Awan, a Pakistani American information technology worker, worked for Democrats in the House of Representatives. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Federal prosecutors concluded an 18-month investigation into a former congressional technology staffer on Tuesday by publicly debunking allegations — promoted by conservative media and President Trump — suggesting he was a Pakistani operative who stole government secrets with cover from House Democrats.

As part of an agreement with prosecutors, Imran Awan pleaded guilty to a relatively minor offense unrelated to his work on Capitol Hill: making a false statement on a bank loan application. U.S. prosecutors said they would not recommend jail time.

But the agreement included an unusual passage that described the scope of the investigation and cleared Awan of a litany of conspiracy theories promulgated on Internet blogs, picked up by right-leaning news sites and fanned by Trump on Twitter.

“The Government has uncovered no evidence that your client violated federal law with respect to the House computer systems,” including stealing equipment or illegally accessing or transferring information, prosecutors wrote in an 11-page plea agreement dated and signed Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors described in the agreement a “thorough investigation” that included forensic analysis of computer equipment and other devices, log-on and usage data and interviews with about 40 witnesses. 

Awan and four of his associates, including family members, worked as IT specialists for dozens of Democratic lawmakers until they were banned from the computer network in February 2017, accused of violating House security rules. The ensuing investigation attracted aggressive coverage by conservative media outlets — led by the Daily Caller — and prompted calls from Trump to prosecute Awan, whom the president referred to in one tweet as the “Pakistani mystery man.”

The case has highlighted Trump’s willingness to lobby for specific outcomes of federal criminal investigations and to suggest a coverup by his own Justice Department. Trump also attempted to tie Awan to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server — a breach that intelligence agencies have concluded was directed by Russia. 

“Our Justice Department must not let Awan & Debbie Wasserman Schultz off the hook,” he tweeted last month, mentioning the Democratic congresswoman from Florida and former chairwoman of the DNC, after a court filing indicated prosecutors were in plea negotiations. “The Democrat I.T. scandal is a key to much of the corruption we see today. They want to make a ‘plea deal’ to hide what is on their Server. Where is Server? Really bad!”

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia did not mention Trump or any media publications by name in the agreement.

But the agreement included an exhaustive list of “public allegations” that prosecutors investigated and shot down, including that investigators took custody of the House Democratic server. 

Federal probe into House technology worker Imran Awan yields intrigue, no evidence of espionage

“Particularly, the Government has found no evidence that your client illegally removed House data from the House network or from House Members’ offices, stole the House Democratic Caucus Server, stole or destroyed House information technology equipment, or improperly accessed or transferred government information, including classified or sensitive information,” prosecutors wrote.

The office that conducted the investigation is led by Trump-nominated U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu. Awan was released from electronic monitoring and will be free pending his sentencing Aug. 21, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ordered after accepting Awan’s plea at the Tuesday hearing.

As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop a bank fraud charge against Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi. Awan agreed to plead guilty to a felony related to an application for a home equity line of credit. He told a bank that the home was his wife’s primary residence; it was a rental property. The loan was fully repaid.

Awan’s attorney called the case a “political prosecution” and a “tremendous waste of law enforcement time and resources” that failed to show a breach of security or harm to the country.

“There has never been any missing server, smashed hard drives, blackmailed members of Congress, or breach of classified information,” lawyer Christopher Gowen said in a statement. “Yet Fox News and its media children continued to peddle a story in perfect coordination with House Republicans and the President.”

Awan and his associates were assigned to work for individual lawmakers, but they shared job duties and log-in information for multiple servers, a practice that is prohibited under House rules. Gowen said that and other security concerns that led to the loss of Awan’s access to the House network illustrated a culture of “disorganization” in Congress rather than espionage.

The U.S. Capitol Police said that although the investigation found nothing to substantiate illegal computer access, it did uncover “violation of House IT internal controls” that would be referred to House officials for “administrative action.”

In his first public statements since the investigation began, Awan told The Washington Post in an interview before Tuesday’s hearing that he questions whether the case would have been pursued if he did not have a Pakistani name. He said he came to the United States as a teenager, put himself through college, became a U.S. citizen and built a career on Capitol Hill — what he portrayed as the fulfillment of a dream.

“This has cost me my reputation, my livelihood, my family,” he said. “I can’t believe this.”

He added, “The president used me to advance his political agenda.”