The Slatest

Is There Anything to the Conservative Media Story About Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s IT Staffers?

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks on March 14 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Conservative media outlets have been salivating the past several months over the twists and turns of a situation involving former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her former IT employee Imran Awan, who was arrested while trying to leave the country last week. The arrest brought the case more prominently into the mainstream press—the New York Times ran an article last Friday—but without many of the sensational details that have been cooked up by conservative conspiracy-mongers since BuzzFeed broke the initial story about an investigation into congressional IT staffers in February. Here is our best effort at ferreting out which allegations in this ongoing saga are plausible, which are baseless, and what’s left to figure out.

In February, BuzzFeed’s John Stanton reported that the U.S Capitol Police, at the request of members of Congress, were investigating five IT staffers working for multiple House Democrats. BuzzFeed said the staffers were being investigated for an alleged “procurement scam,” and Politico later reported their names as Awan; his wife, Hina Alvi; relatives Abid and Jamal Awan; and family friend Rao Abbas. In the same article, Politico also wrote that investigators suspected the five of accessing the House’s computer network improperly and stealing equipment from more than 20 congressional offices.

When word of the investigation broke, many congressional members fired Awan and Alvi, but Wasserman Schultz did not. In a statement, Wasserman Schultz said there hadn’t been enough evidence against Awan at the time to warrant termination. “After details of the investigation were reviewed with us, my office was provided no evidence to indicate that laws had been broken,” she said, “which over time, raised troubling concerns about due process, fair treatment and potential ethnic and religious profiling.” In March, Wasserman Schultz’s office told Politico that Awan was still employed as an adviser “on technology issues.”

Days after the investigation was first reported, conservative media outlets began rooting around for details about the Awans, Alvi, Abbas, and Abid Awan’s wife, Natalia Sova, who also worked in the House. According to the Daily Caller’s analysis of congressional staff data from Legistorm, a proprietary database of information on Congress, the Awans, Alvi, and Sova had reportedly made roughly $5 million since 2003 working for an estimated 80 House Democrats, at pay levels that in some cases are extraordinary for Capitol Hill employees but not necessarily for IT staffers. The Daily Caller has additionally published several posts containing myriad allegations about Awan and Alvi. They allege that:

Most of this information has yet to be corroborated by other media sources; for months, until Awan’s arrest, the Daily Caller had been the lone outlet consistently probing the Awans. But how much of the Caller’s dirt on the staffers amounts to a real scandal implicating Democratic members of Congress or Wasserman Schultz specifically? No wrongdoing involving either has been proven.

Nonetheless, the Caller and other conservative sites following their lead have taken a particular interest in an exchange in May between Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa during an appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department’s budget. At the very end, Wasserman Schultz pointedly and repeatedly asks Vederosa what happens to equipment lost by members of Congress and found by Capitol Police officers:

Wasserman Schultz: If the equipment belongs to the member, it has been lost, they say it’s been lost and it’s been identified as that member’s, then the Capitol Police is supposed to return it. Correct?

Vederosa: Well it’s not—I can’t give you a yes or no answer on that because I know—

Wasserman Schultz: It’s a simple yes or no answer. If a member loses equipment, and it is found by the Capitol Police or your staff, and it is identified as that member’s equipment, and the member is not associated with any case and that is their equipment, it is supposed to be returned. Yes or no?

Vederosa: Depends on the circumstances. And if the circumstances are—

Wasserman Schultz: I don’t understand how that’s possible. Members’ equipment is members’ equipment. It is not—under my understanding the Capitol Police is not able to confiscate members’ equipment when the member is not under investigation. It is their equipment, and it’s supposed to be returned.

Verderosa: Well, I think there’s extenuating circumstances in this case, and I think that working through my counsel and the necessary personnel, if that in fact is the case, and with the permission of, through the investigation, then we’ll return the equipment. But until that’s accomplished I can’t return the equipment.

Wasserman Schultz: I think you’re violating the rules when you conduct your business that way and should expect that there would be consequences.

The Daily Caller alleges that Wasserman Schultz and Verderosa were actually arguing over the Capitol Police’s seizure of a laptop used by Imran Awan. When confronted about the exchange by the Daily Caller in person, Wasserman Schultz walked away, and her office declined to comment.

Last week the Caller reported, according to anonymous sources, that the FBI had seized “smashed hard drives” from Imran Awan’s home. The night after that article was published, Awan was arrested by the FBI and Capitol Police at Dulles International Airport as he was attempting to depart for Pakistan. The charge was bank fraud: Federal officials allege Awan and Alvi lied on a loan application and scammed the Congressional Federal Credit Union out of $165,000. This prompted Wasserman Schultz to finally fire Awan. CNN and other outlets then confirmed that Alvi had indeed left the country for Pakistan in March, as the Caller had reported, but not before being stopped at the airport and searched by federal authorities, who discovered she was taking more than $12,000 in cash with her. According to the New York Times, Awan and Alvi’s lawyer says Alvi and her children “had traveled to Pakistan to stay with family. After speculation about the investigation started to appear online, he said, the family began receiving threats online and without work, they needed to save money.”

What this all adds up to, if anything, is unclear. The right’s conspiracy theorists have taken to advancing some far-fetched scenarios, such as baselessly arguing that Awan, not Russia, may have been responsible for last year’s DNC email hack, echoing the still-kicking theories about the murder of DNC employee Seth Rich. Rod Wheeler, who is a principal promoter of the Rich story (and who is now suing Fox News for falsely quoting him about that case), has suggested that the two cases may be related. Roger Stone has claimed, without evidence, that Awan was “partying” with Seth Rich the night he was killed.

The day after Awan’s arrest, pizzagate theorist Mike Cernovich posted a video purporting to explain the case and claiming that Awan may have been responsible for leaking information about a botched special operations raid in February in Yemen that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William Owens.

Last week, Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera assessed the story:

Rivera: Well, now you have a possible suspect. Here’s the corrupt IT guy standing at the shoulder of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, arrested at the airport trying to flee. Charged with stealing hundreds of thousands, maybe million, of dollars. What if he was the source to WikiLeaks? He has all of the passcodes, he has the passwords, he has all of the information. This is a huge story.

Hannity: I think this is deeper than that. This is my theory: Maybe Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t want to be exposed, 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.

Over the weekend, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted about the Awans:

And on July 27, President Trump retweeted a Townhall article admonishing the mainstream press for ignoring the story.

That afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if Trump was aware of the Awan scandal. “I haven’t had a conversation with him specifically about that,” she said. “But I do think that is something we should fully look into and there should be a thorough investigation on that.”

What “that” is remains extremely murky. There is no reporting connecting Awan’s arrest for bank fraud to any of the more ludicrous allegations. There are, though, some legitimate questions, namely: Did the Awans really improperly access sensitive information on the House’s network and steal that equipment? If so, why? Were their wages unusually high, and if so, why? Did Wasserman Schultz really take measures to protect Awan, and if so, why? Even if the answer to all the above is “yes,” that doesn’t necessarily implicate Wasserman Schultz or other members of Congress. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that these staffers are simply low-level scammers who exploited a lucrative job situation and that Wasserman Schultz handled it in her usual bungled way.

Imran Awan is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for a preliminary hearing on the bank fraud charge on Aug. 21.