A conservative anti-corruption watchdog group is asking for an ethics investigation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) after former House IT aide Imran Awan was apprehended trying the flee the country. In a complaint that will be filed Monday, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) asks if Wasserman Schultz violated the House’s rules by continuing to pay Awan after he was cut off from the House computer system.
“It appears that Representative Wasserman Schultz permitted an employee to remain on the House payroll in violation of House Ethics Rules,” FACT’s Matthew Whitaker writes in the letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics. “After Awan was barred from accessing the House computer system, Wasserman Schultz continued to pay Awan with taxpayer funds for IT consulting — a position that he could not reasonably be able to perform.”
The complaint grew out of the ongoing investigation of Awan and four other House staffers who in February came under investigation after allegedly stealing equipment from their employers. While neither Wasserman Schultz nor other affected members of Congress — all Democrats — have been linked to wrongdoing, Wasserman Schultz’s ill-fated management of the Democratic National Committee has made her a regular focus of attacks and dark theories from activists who believe the 2016 primaries were slanted against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In the last month, the conservative Daily Caller has followed the Awan story especially closely, and on July 23 it reported that “FBI agents seized smashed computer hard drives” from Awan’s home. That sparked fresh interest in the Awan story in conservative and some left-wing media. Tim Canova, a Sanders supporter who ran a spirited 2016 primary challenge to Wasserman Schultz, repeatedly tweeted news stories about the Awan arrest, urging more people to ask questions.
On Fox News, the question led to speculation that Awan was fleeing the country because he may have been linked to the 2016 hack of emails from Wasserman Schultz’s DNC.
“Here’s the corrupt IT guy standing at the shoulder of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, arrested at the airport trying to flee,” said Fox’s Geraldo Rivera on Sean Hannity’s show last week. “What if he was the source to WikiLeaks? He has all of the passcodes, he has the passwords, he has all of the information.”
“Maybe Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t want to be exposed,” said Hannity, “which is why they smashed the hard drives — remember what happened on the eve — because she knows she colluded against Bernie Sanders. She knows the primary was rigged.”
Whitaker, however, said that there was no apparent connection between the DNC hacks and the work Awan did for multiple House Democrats. There’s no evidence that Awan had access to DNC emails. “The only context that adds is that this was not some back-bencher who continued to pay Awan,” he said in an interview.
The FACT letter builds on what mainstream Republicans have identified as the most damaging part of the story: Why a powerful Democratic congresswoman had apparently been slow to act when fraud was discovered in the House.
“We need to figure out why he’s under criminal investigation and we’re not hearing that across the country right now,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said last week on Fox Business. “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.”
Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman David Damron responded to the FACT filing by saying that Awan had been paid for a “variety” of tasks, and that the complaint was baseless.
“Our office worked with the House Chief Administrative Officer to outline a position that allowed us to obtain, and our employee to provide, valuable services without access to the House network,” said Damron. “Those services included consulting on a variety of office needs, such as on our website and printers, trouble-shooting, and other issues. In other words, the complaint that this right-wing group says it’s filing is entirely baseless. It’s no surprise that they would nonetheless file it, against one of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics, at a time when the Administration is trying to distract from its internal turmoil and destructive health care efforts.”
A draft of the FACT complaint is below:
Dear Chairman Hastings and Board Members,
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government. We achieve this mission by hanging a lantern over public officials who put their own interest over the interests of the public good. We write today to request the Office of Congressional Ethics immediately investigate Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s apparent breach of House Ethics Rules.
According to recent reports, several Members employed a House IT Aide, Imran Awan, until Awan was barred from accessing the House’s computer system in February 2017 and under criminal investigation. Nearly all of the Members who employed Awan terminated his employment in March 2017. However, Representative Wasserman Schultz continued to employ and compensate Awan with taxpayer funds. For several months, Wasserman Schultz refused to remove Awan from house payroll even though he was barred from the House computer system which would presumably prevent him from performing any reasonable IT work. It wasn’t until July 25, 2017, after Awan was arrested on bank fraud charges when he was attempting to leave the country, that Wasserman Schultz fired Awan.
House staff are compensated with taxpayer funds, and Members are directly responsible for ensuring their staff are only paid for official public work, work that has actually be performed, and at a rate commensurate with the work performed. A Member must “provide monthly salary certifications” for staff and staff can only be compensated “for duties performed within the preceding month.” Moreover, House staff are also required to abide by the spirit and letter of the ethics rules, including conducting himself in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.6 It was contrary to the House Ethics Rules for Wasserman Schultz to continue to pay Awan with taxpayer funds even after he was barred from the House computer system and could not perform his duties, and under criminal investigation.
It appears that Representative Wasserman Schultz permitted an employee to remain on the House payroll in violation of House Ethics Rules. After Awan was barred from accessing the House computer system, Wasserman Schultz continued to pay Awan with taxpayer funds for IT consulting—a position that he could not reasonably be able to perform. The Office of Congressional Ethics is responsible for ensuring each Representative fulfills the public trust inherent to the office and complies with the House’s ethical standards. Therefore, we urge the Committee to immediately investigate and take appropriate action in response to this apparent violation of the House of Representatives ethical guidelines.
To the best of my knowledge and ability, all evidence submitted was not obtained in violation of any law, rule, or regulation. Further, I am aware that the False Statements Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1001, applies to information submitted to the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Matthew G. Whitaker
Executive Director, Foundation for Accountability & Civic Trust