Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is coming under mounting pressure to explain why she kept an IT aide on the payroll for months after a criminal investigation was revealed, facing calls from Republicans to testify as well as a newly filed ethics complaint.
Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who led the Democratic National Committee until last year, terminated Imran Awan’s “part-time” employment last week, when he was arrested at Dulles International Airport trying to fly to Pakistan. He was charged with a bank fraud count.
But he and other former IT aides for House Democrats have been on investigators’ radar screen for months over concerns about possible double-billing, alleged equipment theft and access to sensitive computer systems. Most lawmakers fired Awan in March, but Schultz kept him on, though he was barred from the House IT network.
“I think she should testify,” Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told conservative radio host Dana Loesch on Monday. “If I had a staff member, an IT staff member, who had access to all of our data and all of our infrastructure and he had come under investigation … you better believe I would be cooperating.”
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., also indicated support on Monday for Schultz testifying, though no such hearing has been formally called at this point.
“We have to investigate how our systems may have been compromised, and that may involve putting people in the [witness] chair,” he told “Fox & Friends.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week “there should be a thorough investigation” on the issue.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), run by former U.S. Attorney Matthew G. Whitaker (a George W. Bush appointee), also filed a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday. The complaint urged an investigation, questioning why Schultz kept paying Awan after he was barred from the House computer system, noting “Members are directly responsible for ensuring their staff are only paid for official public work.”
“There is something quite amiss as to why Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz continued to use taxpayer funds to employ former technology staff member, Imran Awan, even months after he was barred from accessing the House’s computer systems and a number of her colleagues severed ties with Awan,” Whitaker said in a statement.
Wasserman Schultz’ spokesman David Damron pushed back on the complaint’s claims, saying their office worked with the House Chief Administrative Officer to arrange for the employee to keep providing “valuable services without access to the House network.”
“Those services included consulting on a variety of office needs, such as on our website and printers, trouble-shooting, and other issues,” he said, describing the complaint as “entirely baseless” and the work of a “right-wing group” going after “one of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics.”
Awan, 37, of Virginia, pleaded not guilty last Tuesday to the single count of bank fraud, which focused on loan application filings he and his wife made.
Attorney Christopher Gowen told Fox News last week that federal authorities have no evidence of misconduct by Awan relating to his IT duties.
Gowen speculated the charge “could be a placeholder” designed to secure Awan’s arrest, with the intention that it will be supplemented, or supplanted, by additional bank fraud-related charges. But the attorney said six months of federal investigation into the IT work in the House had “turned up nothing on procurement.”
A statement from the law firm, Gowen Rhoades Winograd & Silva, PLLC, also echoed some Democrats’ claims that the attention on Awan is tied to bias over his Pakistani ethnicity.
“The attacks on Mr. Awan and his family began as part of a frenzy of anti-Muslim bigotry in the literal heart of our democracy, the House of Representatives,” the statement said. “… Now we have the Justice Department showing up with a complaint about disclosures on a modest real estate matter. To an extent, the situation speaks for itself.”
The statement said Awan, in buying the plane ticket, was trying to see his family and not trying to “flee” the country. “[W]e are confident that Mr. Awan will soon be able to clear his name,” the statement said.
After Awan was arrested, Wasserman Schultz also issued a written statement:
“After details of the investigation were reviewed with us, my office was provided no evidence to indicate that laws had been broken, which over time, raised troubling concerns about due process, fair treatment and potential ethnic and religious profiling. Upon learning of his arrest, he was terminated.”