WASHINGTON — A conservative anti-corruption watchdog group is asking for an ethics investigation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston., 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 Imran Awan and four other House staffers who in February came under investigation for 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 an episode of 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 chair 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 office did not immediately respond to questions, though it has consistently said that the congresswoman merely fired a part-time employee, and that he, not anyone in Congress, is being investigated.
"Mr. Awan previously served as a part-time employee but his services have been terminated. No charges, evidence or findings from the investigation have been formally shared with our office, so we cannot comment on them," a Wasserman Schultz spokesman said in a previous statement.