Wasserman Schultz talks about arrested aide Imran Awan
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz defiantly stands by her decision to keep an information technology aide on her payroll for six months after he was banned from the House network and fired by other members of Congress.
“I believe that I did the right thing, and I would do it again,” Wasserman Schultz said Thursday in an exclusive interview with the Sun Sentinel. “There are times when you can’t be afraid to stand alone, and you have to stand up for what’s right.
“It would have been easier for me to just fire him,” she said.
The Weston Democrat did fire Imran Awan last week after he was arrested on bank fraud charges at an airport while trying to leave the country.
As the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Wasserman Schultz is the most prominent Democrat who employed Awan. Her decision to keep employing Awan has been under fire from her Democratic primary challenger, Republicans and multiple conservative websites. They’ve suggested Wasserman Schultz is hiding something and the Awan matter is much more serious than she’s letting on.
His arrest, the congresswoman said, had nothing to do with the months-long investigation of Awan as an IT worker for a variety of members of Congress. An FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaint said Awan and his wife claimed a property used to secure a home equity line of credit was a “principal residence,” when it was, in fact, a rental property. Wasserman Schultz said there still hasn’t been any evidence presented that he’s done anything wrong involving his work for Congress.
And, she said, she believes he may have been put under scrutiny because of his religious faith. Awan is Muslim.
Awan, his wife and brothers worked for years for various members of Congress, including Wasserman Schultz. He was a so-called shared employee, with each office paying a part-time salary.
In February, Wasserman Schultz said, chiefs of staffs for members of Congress were told that Awan was under investigation and his access to the House network was suspended. House payroll records show that multiple members of Congress terminated Awan quickly, early in February.
Instead of firing him, Wasserman Schultz said her office worked with the House chief administration officer to develop a job description that “would allow him to continue to do work … until such time as there were other charges brought or we had some evidence that there was something that was produced that warranted further action.”
Even without access to the IT network, Wasserman Schultz said, “there are plenty of technological issues that an IT person can assist with. He didn’t have access to the network, but he was able to give us guidance and advice and troubleshoot on a wide variety of other technological issues.” IT isn’t limited to computer network issues, she said; it includes phones, printers, the website and helping people with software.
“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,” she said.
Wasserman Schultz said the chiefs of staff were told that Awan and his family members were having their access to the House IT network cut off because they were under investigation for “procurement violations and data transfer violations.” Wasserman Schultz said from what she has been able to discern the data transfer issue doesn’t involve anything sinister.
A law enforcement official familiar with the case said after Awan’s arrest there was no evidence of anything beyond the mortgage fraud for which he was charged and no indications of intelligence or national security implications. Because this is a pending case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington said it wouldn’t have any comment beyond the federal complaint.
Instead, Wasserman Schultz said, it involved “transferring data outside the secure network, which I think amounted to use of apps that the House didn’t find compliant with our security requirements.”
An example, she said, is the storage service Dropbox, which allows people to store documents and other images and share them with others. Wasserman Schultz said she believes other IT employees engage in the same kind of data movement as Awan but aren’t being investigated.
Wasserman Schultz said Awan didn’t have access to any classified information. She and other members of Congress aren’t allowed to store classified information in their offices and on their computers.
When they go to secure locations to receive classified information, the members of Congress aren’t allowed to bring in any kind of electronics — Wasserman Schultz even has to leave her Fitbit fitness tracker outside — and aren’t allowed to leave the room with any written notes.
In 2016, Awan was paid $20,000 by Wasserman Schultz. In 2017, he was paid about $7,800, from the beginning of the year until his July 25 termination. His salary rate didn’t change while his duties changed, spokesman David Damron said.
Wasserman Schultz said she hired Awan when she went to Congress in 2005, at the recommendation of then-U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Palm Beach County. She said he worked in various offices as needed.
Wasserman Schultz was also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 to 2016, resigning last summer after WikiLeaks published stolen internal party emails. She said Awan never worked for the DNC.
She said her concerns over the investigation were the reason she grilled Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa about a laptop computer at a May 18 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
She said the laptop in question was issued by her office to Awan. “He accidentally left it somewhere,” a loss Wasserman Schultz said was reported to the Capitol Police. When the Capitol Police recovered the laptop, the agency wanted to search its contents.
She said she has agreed to allow the police to examine the laptop and wasn’t attempting to hide anything. “This was not my laptop. I have never seen that laptop. I don’t know what’s on the laptop,” she said.
She said her concern about the nature of the investigation was what prompted her to warn Verderosa at the hearing that he could face consequences. “I was trying to get more information I wanted to make sure they were following the rules.”
Since Awan’s arrest, Republicans have been questioning Wasserman Schultz. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedre Beach, said, “There’s just a lot of behavior that is not easy to explain.” DeSantis, a likely candidate for Florida governor next year, said the issue “could be a significant security breach.”
Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, was even more certain in a radio interview. “There is a huge national security issue,” McDaniel said. “She’s not cooperating. She’s obstructing every chance she can.”
Wasserman Schultz said much of the coverage of the case on conservative websites and social media is “completely untrue.”
“The right-wing media circus fringe has immediately focused not on this run-of-the-mill investigation just reporting the facts, but jumped to outrageous, egregious conclusions that they were trying to, that they have ties to terrorists and that they were stealing data,” she said.
She cited suggestions he was attempting to flee the country and emphasis on his ultimate destination — Pakistan — before his arrest on the bank fraud charge. The country is widely known as a battleground for Islamic terrorists.
She said it’s absurd to conclude he was trying to flee the country. He filed a form to take an unpaid leave of absence and talked to Wasserman Schultz’s staff chief, Tracie Pough, about his departure and return dates.
“He is from Pakistan. … He’s an American, a naturalized American citizen. His children are natural born citizens. His wife is a naturalized American citizen. And I mean when you’re trying to flee, you don’t fill out a form with your employer and go on unpaid leave,” she said.
Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi, was already in Pakistan, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in connection with the case. Even though both had return tickets, the agent said he didn’t believe Alvi intended to return to the U.S. The couple had wired $283,000 to Pakistan in January, the affidavit said. The wire transfer included $165,000 from the home equity line of credit.
Wasserman Schultz said the Awan case is getting so much attention from conservative media outlets because they’re attempting to distract people from the investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. “Any opportunity they can to pull people’s eyes and ears away from that they take.”
Until Thursday’s 35-minute interview with the Sun Sentinel, at her district office in Sunrise, Wasserman Schultz’ comments about Awan have come through her communications director.
She said she hasn’t been hiding from her constituents or the controversy. Wasserman Schultz said she’s spent a few days on vacation after Congress began its August recess at the end of last week. On Wednesday night, she spoke at a Nova Southeastern University event in Dania Beach. On Thursday morning, she spoke at an organized labor event in Hollywood. She said she plans a heavy schedule of events in the district later in the month.
“I’ve been on vacation,” she said. “I’m not hiding, and I have no reason to hide.”