WASHINGTON – One of the most bizarre spectacles in Washington is flying almost completely under the radar, even though much of it is playing out in public.
And, it begs one simple question:
Is someone blackmailing one of the top members of Congress in plain sight?
It's a question that demands to be asked, given the basic known facts.
Democratic bigwig Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has become the central figure in two major computer hacking scandals, but she has responded to the incidents in completely opposite ways.
When WikiLeaks published 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, on July 22, 2016, Wasserman Schultz resigned as the group's chair two days later, the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention.
She didn't really have much choice.
- The emails revealing DNC leaders conspired to sabotage the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders to secure the nomination of Hillary Clinton was an embarrassing political disaster.
- Thousands of Sanders supporters were marching in the streets of Philadelphia demanding her resignation as DNC chair.
- Wasserman Schultz was told to resign by then-President Obama, according to CNN.
In that first hacking scandal, Wasserman Schultz simply resigned. In her own hacking scandal, she has shown all the signs of stonewalling.
With evidence piling up that her own congressional office computer was hacked, Wasserman Schultz has:
- Refused to fire the suspect;
- Given him a new title and kept him on her payroll;
- Apparently allowed him to continue access to her computer system;
- Demanded Capitol Police return her laptop, a key piece of evidence in a criminal investigation;
- Seemingly threatened to cut the department's budget if it did not comply;
- Admitted to violating official information security policy, but she blamed the House’s chief administrative officer for not stopping her.
Her behavior is so extraordinary, it would seem to raise a question as to whether she is even trying to obstruct justice.
Why would she take such risks?
And why would she protect the person who is accused of victimizing her?
The suspect had access to any and all of the sensitive, and/or confidential, information in her congressional computer system, including any material that could be politically embarrassing, as was the case with the DNC emails.
If the hack were to put her career on the line, she may have nothing to lose by trying to bury the case.
But there's another salient factor to consider.
The key suspect had what cyber-security experts consider numerous red flags indicating a potential blackmailer.
The secret scandal
Conservatives are frustrated that the scandal has received virtually no national attention and has been ignored by the major media.
Politico, BuzzFeed News and WND have covered the story, while the Daily Caller has devoted an investigative team to digging up details for months.
When the story broke five months ago, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, called for a congressional investigation, saying, "The facts regarding technology procurement and potentially illegal violations of the House IT network by several Democratic staffers is very concerning."
But as far as is publicly known. soon-to-retire Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, never did launch an investigation.
And, as even more damning and bizarre revelations began piling up, the national media kept turning a blind eye to the story.
These are the basic facts of the case.
In early February, three brothers and two of their wives who managed information technology, or IT, for some 80 Democratic lawmakers were relieved of their duties and barred from computer networks at the House of Representatives.
Not all of the lawmakers required full-time IT services, so the brothers worked as shared employees, and the offices split their salaries. It was up to each lawmaker to decide whether to fire them.
The brothers and their associates are now under criminal investigation by the U.S. Capitol Police, which is getting expert technical assistance, presumably from the FBI.
The criminal investigation actually began in late 2016, with the brothers under suspicion of secretly accessing the lawmakers computer networks, storing information on secret servers, and stealing equipment from Congress.
The IT techs were employed by three members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and five members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which store sensitive national security documents, including material related to terrorism, on their own committee servers.
Representatives for the two committees said those systems are sealed off from the lawmakers' own office computer systems, they have their own IT staff and security measures, and that officials are confident no sensitive material was taken from committee servers.
In theory, at least, it was technically not impossible for a lawmaker to have transferred classified material from committee servers by merely remembering it and then typing it up on his or her own office computer. However, as that would be illegal and even potentially treasonous, any lawmaker would be taking a substantial risk by doing so.
Still, there is one additional odd detail that makes the case all the more peculiar: The IT workers under investigation are Muslims and Pakistani nationals.
Meet the Awans
Imran Awan has worked for Wasserman Schultz since 2005, the year she became the congressional representative from Florida's 23rd district.
Imran and his wife, Hina Alvi, are personal friends with the congresswoman, according to multiple sources.
Imran has "unusual clout among House Democrats," according to the Daily Caller, and he has been photographed with former President Bill Clinton.
Payroll records show that soon after Wasserman Shultz hired Imran, other House Democrats hired him, his wife, his two brothers Abid and Jamal, and his brother's wife, Natalia Sova, as IT workers. (From Ukraine, Sova is the only one of the group who is not a Pakistani national.)
Public records show Imran was paid $165,000 a year; Abid made $161,000; Jamal, Hina Alvi and Natalia Sova earned $160,000 each.
Those salaries are comparable to what top House aides such as chiefs of staff earn, not IT workers. Why these computer technicians made such exorbitant salaries has never been explained by their Democratic employers.
In fact, $160,000 a year is three times the average House IT staff salary, according to InsideGov, which lists the median salary for legislative assistants as $43,000 annually.
Since they began working for the government, the family members have made $5 million overall, according to Legistorm.com.
Imran has been paid $2 million and Abid $1.5 million.
Only 100 of the 25,000 people who have worked in the House since 2010 have made more than Imran.
But, despite all that income, the Awans have had persistent money problems, including huge debts. Imran's wife took out multiple second mortgages.
House staffers told the Daily Caller that Imran (and, recently, Jamal) did the bulk of the work and the others were rarely seen on Capitol Hill.
The staffers alleged the no-show workers were only on the payroll to collect three more big salaries and to get around a rule that prevents aides from making larger salaries than members of Congress.
Imran arrived on Capitol Hill in the early 2000s, and Abid joined him in 2005. Alvi was put on the congressional payroll in 2007 and Sova in 2011. Jamal was added in 2014.
It's not clear how many of them are now suspects in a criminal case and a cyber-security investigation into whether sensitive congressional information was compromised, as well as the possible theft of money and equipment.
Most Democrats apparently fired the four after the investigation was announced in February.
Wasserman Shultz has refused to fire Imran, and she has given him a new title of "adviser" to get around his ban from the House computer network imposed by Capitol Police since Feb. 2.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-NY, who is also reported to be friends with Imran and his wife, has also refused to fire Imran.
Meeks blamed the investigation on Islamophobia and said "their background as Muslim Americans, some with ties to Pakistan, could make them easy targets for false charges."
'These are very bad people'
Someone who knows the Awan brothers disagrees.
A relative of the brothers' stepmother, Samina Galani, said she has spoken out against the Awans because, "I am fighting to protect the country. These are very bad people."
And she says she's speaking out because she believes lawmakers have tried to limit the investigation and downplay any crimes.
The relative said the brothers threatened Galani (identified sometimes as Gilani) with violence and held her in virtual captivity from Oct. 16, 2016, to Feb. 2, which was, perhaps not coincidentally, the day the Capitol Police announced the investigation of the Awans.
According to court documents filed April 14 in Fairfax County, Virginia, Galani claimed the Awan brothers warned her not to talk to U.S. law-enforcement authorities and demanded she give them access to assets belonging to their dying father, Muhammad Shah, her husband of eight years.
The relative said they used high-tech listening devices to ensure Galani's compliance and repeated her private conversations back to her to prove she was being monitored.
The relative urged Galani to get a secret cell phone. Galani called police in Fairfax County, Virginia, just before the House investigation became public.
The police report obtained by the Daily Caller said Galani claimed the brothers were denying her access to her dying husband and scheming to get his life insurance by forcing her to give them power of attorney.
"I made contact with her stepson, Abid, who responded to location and was obviously upset with the situation. He stated he has full power of attorney over his father and produced an unsigned, undated document as proof," said the police report. "He refused to disclose his father’s location."
Galani's relative said Abid then "threatened her very severely, made her fearful, they told her they are going to abduct or kidnap her family back in Pakistan, and she had to apologize."
The court documents show Galani, herself, said, “Imran Awan threatened that he is very powerful, and if I ever call the police again, [he] will … kidnap my family members back in Pakistan."
The relative said a life-insurance executive told Galani, "a few days before the father’s death, the beneficiary was changed and Abid became the beneficiary."
The Daily Caller reported Galani escaped from the brothers and filed a second police complaint with Fairfax County for insurance fraud and other abuses.
In the court documents, Galani said Imran portrays himself abroad as a powerful person in Congress and travels with a VIP police escort in Pakistan, because of what he describes as his political power in the U.S.
In May, Imran's wife, Hina, who may be a criminal suspect in the House hacking investigation, fled to Pakistan where she reportedly has "significant assets and VIP-level protection."
Despite Meeks' suggestion that the Awans are being investigated because of Islamophobia, it's not their first brush with the law.
Abid was convicted of drunken driving one month before he started his job at the House. He was arrested for public intoxication a month after his first day.
His record also includes driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Imran has also been convicted of criminal misdemeanors, using an illegal radar detector and driving an unregistered vehicle.
While earning $161,000 a year since 2005 for a House job where he was rarely seen, Abid appeared to spend most of his time running a car dealership that went bankrupt.
Abid listed $1 million in liabilities in his 2012 bankruptcy.
He managed to keep ownership of two houses by telling the court that he and his estranged wife, Soba, needed separate homes.
Before the business folded, a congressional credit union repossessed two of Abid's personal cars. He owed the credit union $10,000, which was never repaid. Debts to numerous other small businesses and individuals also went unpaid.
In 2010, after just one year in business, Imran began running the floundering dealership, which was called Cars International A, LLC, and referred to as "CIA" in court documents.
Imran forbade Abid to even to talk to anyone about the business.
Meanwhile, somehow, Imran was also working as a realtor, in addition to running the dealership and his attending to his House IT duties.
Abid’s one-time business partner, Nasir Khattak, said the dealership’s finances involved bizarre and complicated transfers, including the swapping of staff and cars with a dealership next door.
"It was very bad record-keeping in Cars International … it is close to impossible to make any sense out of all the transactions that happened," the Daily Caller found Khattak had said in court documents.
Those documents also showed business associates have accused Abid of stealing money and vehicles from them.
But perhaps the most bizarre – and suspicious – aspect of the House investigation occurred when a creditor who threatened to sue the Awans, Rao Abbas, suddenly appeared on the congressional payroll and ended up receiving $250,000 in taxpayer-financed salary through the end of 2016.
On top of all that, the Awans' dealership was unable to repay a $100,000 loan to an Iraqi businessman, Dr. Ali Al-Attar, who has ties to the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, and fled to the Mideast to avoid prosecution for tax fraud in the U.S.
According to the Daily Caller, that loan was "funneled through a company with impossible-to-decipher financial transactions that the congressional information technology staffers controlled."
Given the Awans' business dealings, it may be no surprise that their work in the House was not done by the book, to say the least.
These are the key elements of the case that make its so extraordinary and so potentially troubling:
- The Awan group had access to all of their bosses' emails, documents and confidential files: everything on the lawmakers' office computers and other electronic devices.
- That gave the technicians illegal access to all secret and privileged congressional information, including any potentially sensitive material that could be compromising and/or politically embarrassing.
- Lawmakers have no way of knowing if anything on their electronic devices was copied.
- The technicians had no oversight, and there was virtually no tracking of what they did.
- That was an extraordinary violation of the House security rules.
- The Awans are suspected of setting up a secret server to store information.
- They were paid much more than those in similar positions.
The suspects were all banned from the House of Representatives computer network back in February when the investigation was announced. But, despite all the damning evidence that continues to accumulate, no one has been charged or arrested. It also appears that none of their passports has been confiscated.
The Awan group had access to all the lawmakers' emails and confidential files on office computers because they had set up the user accounts.
It appears the investigators might have begun looking into the Awans when they discovered congressional information was being sent to an off-site server, leading to suspicions the brothers were accessing and stealing the material.
The Daily Caller spoke with a former House IT staffer who said there was virtually no in-house tracking of what the suspects did.
That's because, the paper reported, "Awan bullied central IT to bend the rules for him so there wouldn’t be a paper trail about the unusually high permissions he was requesting."
It was a major violation of House rules that the suspects' actions were not logged.
"IT staff at HIR can be tracked for every keystroke they make," said the source. However, "when these guys were granted access to the Member’s computer systems, there is no oversight or tracking of what they may be doing on the Member’s system. For example, they could make a copy of anything on the Member’s computer system to a thumb drive or have it sent to a private server they had set up, and no one would know."
“After being notified by the House Administration Committee, [Abid] was removed from our payroll. We are confident that everything in our office is secure,” Hilarie Chambers, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, told the Daily Caller.
But she really had no way of knowing if that was true, according to what multiple House IT workers told the paper.
All told, the Awans are accused of doing so much that was so illegal, a House source told WND the suspects will likely receive prison sentences.
That fact makes it all the more curious that House Democrats are downplaying the apparent seriousness of the investigation.
'They have something on someone'
“I don’t know what they have, but they have something on someone. It’s been months at this point,” Pat Sowers, who has managed IT for several House offices for 12 years, told the Daily Caller. "Something is rotten in Denmark."
"There’s no question about it: If I was accused of a tenth of what these guys are accused of, they’d take me out in handcuffs that same day, and I’d never work again," said the manager of a company that provides high-tech services for House Democrats.
House IT workers have a number of reasons to openly wonder if the Awans are blackmailing members of Congress.
For starters, money trouble and access to sensitive government information is a bad mix.
Security experts consider the combination a bright red flag marking a security risk with the potential for blackmail.
While congressional committees dealing with national security are confident their computer systems were not compromised, the length of the investigation suggests the FBI may be looking into whether sensitive material may have been illegally accessed on the individual computer systems of the Democratic lawmakers on the committee who employed the Awan group.
And, even if portrayed to WND as unlikely, it is not impossible lawmakers stored classified information on their own electronic devices, including office computers.
But information doesn't have to be classified to be private, privileged, extremely sensitive and of the utmost importance. Or, embarrassment.
According to House IT workers, the term "classified" is used to describe secret and important material by spy agencies and intelligence committees, but not by regular members of Congress.
Sensitive material stored on their computers need not be related to national security to be so politically embarrassing as to be useful to a potential blackmailer.
When congressional staffers downplayed the significance of the Awan investigation because they apparently did not have access to classified information, multiple House IT workers told the Daily Caller that rankled them, because "those semantics misleadingly made it seem like they didn’t have access to extremely sensitive information."
That was especially true because the Awans had installed everything on their clients' systems, set up all the accounts and granted all the required permissions and restrictions, which effectively gave them full control over the lawmakers computer systems.
And their remote access meant lawmakers would never even know when the Awans were on their system.
A central IT worker said members of Congress were simply trying to ignore the seriousness of the problem, and "security of computer systems on the Hill is not really taken seriously."
Five congressional IT aides told the Daily Caller they were baffled by the loyalty shown by lawmakers who had not fired Awan group suspects.
That led them to wonder if the lawmakers were being blackmailed.
Especially as there still have been no arrests.
As of May, only 20 lawmakers out of the some 80 who employed the Awans at some point had publicly confirmed firing them.
A House IT employee said the new technicians who took over those offices found some had all the office computer data sent to a secret offisite server.
They also discovered a non-government iTunes account to which staffers' iPhones were linked.
And while the Awans were allegedly committing all those security risks, it doesn't appear lawmakers were getting stellar service in return.
An IT specialist who took over an Awan office told the Daily Caller they did not keep a hardware inventory and had a lawmaker paying for phone lines that hadn’t been used for years.
Sowers said the number of lawmakers who showed such loyalty for such bad customer service "would definitely be suspicious."
He added, "I love the Hill, but to see this clear lack of concern over what appears to be a major breach bothers me. Everyone has said for years they were breaking the rules, but it’s just been a matter of time."
And yet, despite all the problems, the Awans reportedly worked for more congressional offices than any other IT group.
A Democratic IT contractor implied there was a cover-up, telling the Daily Caller that lawmakers are saying, "Don’t say anything, this will all blow over if we all don’t say anything."
The technician said the Awans "had [members of Congress] in their pocket," and "there are a lot of members who could go down over this."
Obstruction of justice?
It may be difficult to imagine how the demand to return of a key piece of evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation, and the threat of "consequences" if that were not done, would not amount to obstruction of justice.
But that's what Wasserman Schultz did in public, in an incident that received remarkably little press coverage, and none in the mainstream media.
It happened as she was questioning Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa during the annual police budget hearing of the House Committee On Appropriations’ Legislative Branch subcommittee on May 18.
The Florida congresswoman's questions were triggered by investigators' seizure of one of her laptops.
A federal employee told the Daily Caller, as investigators were zeroing in on the Awan brothers, someone had hidden a laptop used by Imran in a crevice of the Rayburn House Office Building. (Rayburn is connected by a tunnel to the adjoining Longworth House Office Building, where Wasserman Schultz’s office is located.)
The source said police later found the laptop and seized it as evidence in the criminal investigation.
But, during the May 18 hearing, Wasserman Schultz openly pressured police to return the evidence to her.
"My understanding is the Capitol Police is not able to confiscate Members’ equipment when the Member is not under investigation," she told the police chief.
"We can’t return the equipment,” replied Chief Verderosa.
Wasserman Shutlz then responded with a not-so-veiled threat, warning the chief, “I think you’re violating the rules when you conduct your business that way and you should expect that there will be consequences."
In the context of the hearing, the most obvious "consequence" would be cutting the Capitol Police budget.
Wasserman Schultz is one of the eight members of the subcommittee in charge of that budget.
All told, she spent three minutes of the hearing trying to get the chief to return her laptop, without apparent success.
Wasserman Shultz had another bizarre moment the day before, also during an appropriations hearing, when she admitted to violating official information security policy "for years and years and years."
And then she curiously blamed the House’s chief administrative officer for not stopping her.
"If a member is using an application outside of the House infrastructure and the protection of the, [of] our cybersecurity network, they’re in violation of House policy?" asked Wasserman Schultz.
"Of the House Policy 17, yes ma’am," replied House information security officer John Ramsey.
“So members are not supposed to be using Dropbox?” she asked, referring to a popular Internet site used to share and store files.
“Not according to the policy,” Ramsey replied.
For some reason, she chose to reply: "I am more than happy to admit that I use Dropbox. I have used it for years and years and years. It is not blocked. I am fully able to use it."
The congresswoman then blamed security officials for not preventing her from using the site.
"So, there is a vulnerability in our network in spite of the fact that you say that you’ve taken steps to address it," she surmised. "And there is not enough of a – of a policy that – that applies across the board. And you need to make sure that you tighten up your rules and policies so that you can really take and assure us that you take seriously protecting our network."
Wasserman Schultz then seemed to use that line of questioning to ask if House security officers were spying on her.
“Are members monitored?” she inquired. Then she asked how they made sure lawmakers were following the rules and whether security officers contacted members of Congress directly.
"When the policy came out, ma’am, we had sent some targeted communications out to the various IT systems administrators that service … the members,” Ramsay explained.
But instead of faulting Imran for not informing her of security policy, Wasserman Schultz blamed security officers for not contacting lawmakers directly.
Deriding the practice of "just lobbing e-mail into a tech person’s inbox," she persisted, "Wouldn’t you think that you would have a policy where you inform every single member and that we actually have a meeting with each member’s tech person so that you can inform them exactly what the rules are, what is allowable, what is not allowable?"
"We do inform every IT person, IT administrator in every congressional office. If that’s not enough …" replied Chief Administrative Officer Phil Kiko.
Link to DNC hacks?
Another oddity of the case is the question of whether it is mere coincidence that there were computer security breaches at both Wasserman Schultz's congressional office and the DNC that she headed, or whether the two incidents may be related.
The Daily Caller learned that Imran had the password to an iPad used by Wasserman Schultz and the DNC at the time of the publication of the hacked emails by WikiLeaks.
The paper reprted "Imran was on call for, and on a first-name basis with, top DNC staff," and that Wasserman's "world – and iPad – mixed DNC, House and campaign business."
When the DNC emails were published by WIkiLeaks, with the politically toxic information that cost Wasserman Schultz her party chairmanship, former interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile initially claimed the emails might have been fabricated.
When that soon turned out not to be true, Brazile then blamed the Russians for wanting to hurt Clinton's presidential candidacy.
What was the truth? The DNC would not let investigators find out. They refused to let the FBI examine its server, according to former director James Comey.
A logical conclusion might be the DNC did not want still secret but embarrassing information on the server to be revealed.
The same conclusion might apply to Wasserman's Schultz's attempt to retrieve her laptop held by Capitol Police as evidence.
Was Imran connected to the DNC hacks and leaks? Ironically, it was hacked DNC emails that showed Imran's unusual access to the DNC computer system.
WikiLeaks published an email chain that showed Garret Bonosky, deputy director of the DNC, wrote on May 4, 2016: "Amy – I will call you shortly. I have to get this ipad thing figured out. Need to make sure I have her username and password."
"I do not have access to her ipad password, but Imran does," replied DNC Assistant to the Chair Amy Kroll.
In March, the Daily Caller asked Wasserman Schultz spokesman David Damron whether the hacked DNC emails might have come from Imran, but did not receive a response.
He also did not respond to a request for any stronger evidence the Russians were responsible for the hacks.
The paper also reported on the greater likelihood the DNC was hacked by someone known to them and trusted rather than by a foreign government: "Computer security experts say the most common threat comes from someone abusing a position of trust, trusting the wrong person or a perpetrator manipulating someone using 'social engineering' to gain access; all such explanations defy the prevalent stereotype of distant strangers using high-tech tricks."
Ghosts in the machine?
The case of one member of the Awan group, the aforementioned Rao Abbas, might illustrate how the brothers apparently used congressional employees who actually performed little, if any, work, to increase the brothers' own income, and conducting what the Daily Caller termed a "multi-million-dollar IT scam."
The paper reported that although Abbas made $250,000 in his role as a House IT administrator, his most recent job experience had been working at McDonald's, which had fired him.
Abbas was said to be Imran's best friend and lived in the basement of a house owned by Imran's wife. It was a basement he rarely left, according to his upstairs neignbor.
Imran was also reportedly having that neighbor make rent checks payable to Abbas.
Payroll records dug up by the Daily Caller showed Abbas was the only IT worker on Capitol Hill serving Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla. Spokesmen for the lawmakers refused to say if if they had ever seen Abbas in their offices.
If Imran was doing the actual work, that would have violated House rules against using non-staff members.
Cleaver, at one point, had five of the six members of the Awan group on his payroll. Deutch had three, but only Abbas for the last two years.
Abbas was also on the payroll of former Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, and Reps. Charlie Crist of Florida and Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who took office in January.
Spokesmen for Crist and Rosen declined to say who recommended Abbas.
A House IT worker told the Daily Caller about "ghost employees … When a new Congress would come in, they would have the members of the offices they were servicing vouch for them.”
Another congressional IT worker, one who took over some of the Awans' clients, said office workers "weren’t used to seeing their technicians."
The Daily Caller reported that someone had to do the work for what it called "no-show employees," and one of those people, from 2013 to 2014, was Imran's old high-school friend, Haseeb Rana.
Rana wouldn't comment, but his father told the paper "they made him do all the work … After three months, he wanted to leave. We were having a very charged relationship with Imran. [Haseeb] was not satisfied with their behavior."
Who used the Awans?
Although the Awan ring reportedly worked for some 80 Democrats in the House, it is difficult to identify all of them, given all the murky arrangements.
But the list of those reportedly employing the Awans and their associates includes these current or former Democrats in Congress, in no particular order:
Andre Carson, Luis Guiterez, Jim Himes, Terri Sewell, Jackie Speier, Mike Quigley, Patrick Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joaquini Castro, Lois Frankel, Ted Lieu, Robin Kelly, Tammy Duckworth, Mark Takano, John Sarbanes, Diana DeGette, Cedric Richmond, Charlie Crist, Jacky Rosen, Sandy Levin, Karen Bass and Marcia Fudge.
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated Rep. Eric Swalwell had employed the Awans or their associates.