A History Of Alleged Intimidation And Tampering In House Hacking Case Marked By Witnesses’ Silence
Soon after the House of Representatives found that Democratic IT aide Imran Awan and his family made “unauthorized access” to congressional data, Imran hurriedly vacated his house, renting it in February 2017 to a former Marine. Imran angrily told his new tenant, Andre Taggart, that he was homeless and to refuse any certified mail in Imran’s name, Taggart said.
A lawyer contacted Taggart about some items Imran left behind in the house and threatened to sue if he didn’t return them, saying he’d accuse Taggart of theft, Taggart said. The equipment included Blackberries and “hard drives they look like they tried to destroy,” as well as laptops and “a lot of brand new expensive [printer] toner,” he said. Based on his military training, they appeared to Taggart to be government equipment, and he called the police.
The Capitol Police and FBI arrived to collect the computer equipment, and Taggart moved out of the house in May, he said. In late August, Taggart felt that there was enough distance between Imran and his family that it was safe to tell his story publicly.
He received a letter days later from Jesse Winograd, whose law firm Gowen Rhoades Winograd & Silva was hired by Imran to deal with the congressional matter. The letter demanded some $15,000, citing a laundry list of damages, including killing a tree in the yard. Taggart denies the charges and believes Awan may be trying to intimidate him.
The House Office of Inspector General claimed in late 2016 that the Awan family logged into members’ servers they had no business accessing, in some cases after they’d been fired. Prosecutors allege the family also ordered equipment – sometimes shipped to their residence – using invoices falsified to make it easier for equipment to disappear, and took measures to cover their tracks.
The FBI began surveilling them, but prosecutors contend in court papers that the Awans likely “knew they were under investigation,” and they wired $300,000 to Pakistan. Federal agents arrested Imran at the airport in July trying to fly to Pakistan, and charged Imran and his wife with bank fraud involving money they wired overseas.
However, months later, authorities have not charged the couple with the more serious “unauthorized access” described in the IG’s investigation and backed up by server logs. Capitol Hill officials involved in oversight of the case say the reason is that Democratic employers are acting like “hostile victims” and are refusing to press charges.
TheDCNF emailed a summary of the IG’s findings — which were never made public — to 40 Democratic offices tied to Imran or his family members. Only one responded, and none would say the office was interested in finding out more or pressing charges if warranted.
Given Democrats’ keen attention to political cyber breaches in the wake of the hack of the Democratic National Committee and other high-profile incidents, fellow IT aides and Republicans have offered theories to explain their uncharacteristic silence in this case: Blackmail or fear of retaliation by the Awans, who could read all the emails and files of 1 in 5 House Democrats, in the form of releasing that data or other information if they dare speak out against them.
That theory is strengthened by a yearlong investigation by TheDCNF: Court filings and interviews show Imran has been accused of allegedly invoking his congressional position to intimidate immigrants, summoning political favors to make criminal charges go away, ordering witnesses not to cooperate with police, and enlisting police resources to bully people.
The most egregious incident of possible obstruction came after the IG determined that the House Democratic Caucus server was the epicenter of the suspected cybersecurity breach. There were indications the server might have been secretly collecting data from numerous offices, and it was uploading data offsite, an IG presentation said. Soon after, that entire server-turned-evidence was physically stolen, according to three government officials.
Imran’s entire family, plus a couple associates, were on the House payroll ostensibly working as IT administrators until they were banned from the House network on Feb. 2, 2017. The group collected a total of $7 million in salary even though some did not have any background in IT, and there are indications some were no-show workers, or “ghost employees.” Democrats have refused to say whether they ever saw some of the crew, such as Rao Abbas, whose most recent job experience was at McDonald’s. Abbas appeared on the payroll of numerous House Democrats soon after the Awans owed him money in a potential lawsuit, according to court documents.
“They weren’t used to seeing their technicians,” one IT aide who took over some offices after the family was banned said.
There’s one man who could testify about a potential “ghost employee” scheme: Haseeb Rana, a bona fide IT specialist who briefly worked for the same offices as the Awans. Though the aides were individual W2 employees and hiring authority rested only with congressmen, Rana’s father said Imran hired him and “made him do all the work” of multiple people but with less pay. Payroll records confirm that Haseeb quit months later.
Despite what his father called a “very charged” relationship with Imran, investigators interested in using Rana as a witness might encounter a problem. Documents in a civil lawsuit reveal he has retained a lawyer: Winograd, the same one representing Imran.
In April 2017, months after Imran was banned from the congressional computer network, staff doing a midnight sweep of the House buildings found that he left a laptop with the username RepDWS in a phone booth along with a note that said “attorney-client privilege,” according to a police report.
One of Imran’s most longstanding employers and vocal advocates was former Democratic National Committee Chair and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Winograd began his law career in Miami and advertises experience in the Espionage Act and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
In a televised exchange during the Capitol Police’s budget hearing, Wasserman Schultz threatened the Capitol Hill chief of police with “consequences” if he didn’t return the laptop, which authorities were holding as evidence. She hired an outside lawyer to try to block prosecutors from accessing it, paying him with campaign funds, according to campaign finance records.
Imran’s attorneys later argued to invoke attorney privilege on the laptop in court, setting up a situation where the fate of Wasserman Schultz’s laptop would rest in his hands. Prosecutors have been going back and forth on the issue for months.
Meanwhile, in media comments that could be interpreted as a warning shot to members, the Awans’ attorneys blamed congressmen for the altered invoices, saying they had “ordered” it, and “in a fluid situation you do what you’re ordered to do.”
Taggart said police and prosecutors would be naive to think that witnesses and victims not being forthcoming with evidence in the Capitol Hill probe meant that it was all some harmless misunderstanding, and that they need to keep in mind that people might be afraid.
“It’s ridiculous that he’s only being investigated for bank fraud. He’s a con artist,” Taggart said of Imran. “Let’s say he gets a slap on the wrist, he goes home happily ever after with the millions of dollars he’s siphoned from this country.”
In an email to TheDCNF, Chris Gowen, another of Imran’s attorneys and a former personal aide to Hillary Clinton who also hails from Miami, lashed out at the former Marine: “LOL! Oh is that what Taggart says? Mr. Taggart is a thief who did not pay his rent or for the furniture he took and agreed to pay for and he destroyed the house! Imran still is owed that money. You should ask law enforcement what they think about Mr. Taggart.”
Taggart said he believes the demand for $15,000 “went back to the interview I’d conducted two days prior, which he’d undoubtedly seen, and I don’t know if it was an intimidation factor, but it had the complete opposite effect.”
But most people don’t have the courage of the Marine, and others have said Imran told them not to cooperate with law enforcement.
A couple who rents an apartment from Imran’s wife Hina Alvi in Alexandria, Va., told TheDCNF Imran demanded that they refuse to cooperate with police.
The couple, who asked TheDCNF to withhold their names because Imran has keys to their home, said he wanted to sell the house at a fire sale price in November, soon after the IG report. “He tried to do a quick sale in November , he was going to make us move out in two weeks,” they said. “He wanted $110,000, now he wants $200,000.”
Other times, Imran was accused of using his federal job to strike fear in the hearts of immigrants unfamiliar with the U.S. system.
In an April 2017 civil court case, Imran’s own stepmother alleges that “Imran Awan threatened that he is very powerful and if I ever call the police again, [he] will do harm to me and my family members back in Pakistan and one of my cousins here in Baltimore. [He] threatened that he has power to kidnap my family members back in Pakistan … Imran Awan introduces himself someone from U.S. Congress or someone from federal agencies.” She also charges that legal papers necessary for her to advocate for herself were stolen.
Imran’s own wife, Hina Alvi, said in a suit filed in Pakistan on September 13, 2017, that he “threatened [her] of dire consequences, he also threatened to harm the lives of family of [Hina] if she intervenes.” Prosecutors in the U.S. sat her across from Imran as a co-defendant weeks later, on Oct. 6, where Imran’s lawyer Gowen used the presence of his wife to paint him as someone who would not flee because he was a loving family man. Gowen said the husband and wife were living separately in Virginia, but asked if Imran could sleep at Hina’s house if he wanted. Prosecutors didn’t object, and the judge consented.
There is evidence that his alleged threats are not just bluster.
In 2015 and 2016, two other immigrant women staying in different apartments in a complex in Virginia separately called police on several occasions. Officers found the women bloodied, and one said Imran was keeping her “like a slave.” Neither pressed charges. It is not clear that they were employed, and court records show at least one was dependent on Imran to pay her rent.
Twenty Democratic congresswomen who employed the Awans, many vocal in the “me too” anti-sexual harassment movement, declined to express concern about the police reports.
Laurel Everly, another tenant in one of the several rental properties the Awans owned, said “he threatened me, all these attempts to get money from me in different ways,” such as demanding payment because the house’s garden was dead in the winter.
She says she believes the reason congressional employers refuse to acknowledge the case is that they may fear repercussions from Imran, including the release of troublesome emails and files.
“I went through some stuff with him that lends itself to the idea that he was capable of doing something bad in Congress,” she charged. “He’s a bad person is the point, an extortionist … he absolutely is capable of trying to extort or blackmail.”
“The basement flooded from a bad storm and his sump pump was broken. He said I was going to have to pay $10,000 for the drywall and how dare I question his integrity, he was a high ranking federal employee who had passed background investigations,” Everly said.
Imran also used House email addresses when conducting side businesses. When the landlord of one of the bloodied women faulted Imran for nonpayment, he told him he “worked for the U.S. House of Representatives and his email address was email@example.com.”
At times, the Awans – who have been involved in at least a dozen lawsuits while on the House payroll – have appeared so confident in their ability to manipulate the justice system that they have sicced it on people who were accusing them of fraud, according to interviews and lawsuits.
While making $165,000 salaries on Capitol Hill, Imran and Abid Awan operated a fly-by-night car dealership that took $100,000 from an Iraqi government official who is a fugitive from the Department of Justice, discharged $1 million in debts in bankruptcy, and was not disclosed on mandatory House ethics forms.
Brian Jenkins of Silver Spring, Md., said in a lawsuit that the dealership sold him a car that it turned out would not even start without jumping the battery. Abid advised him to simply leave the car running at all times. Abid sold it to him with a warranty, so Jenkins brought it back. Abid had the car blocked in and refused to let him retrieve his personal belongings from the vehicle, the lawsuit said.
After hours of discussions, Abid only allowed him to have the car back if Jenkins modified the car’s sales price to agree to pay even more, it said. Despite Jenkins agreeing to this, “defendant has reported the vehicle as stolen to law enforcement,” causing Jenkins to be harassed by police “numerous times” as he drove the car that he had paid for twice over, the lawsuit says.
“Defendant is aware of the falsity of this report to law enforcement.”
Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported in 2009 that Awan’s father was arrested for fraud in that country after allegedly stealing a large tract of land from elderly farmers, but that police were “reluctant” to proceed after powerful people “in the [Pakistani] federal capital as well as in the provincial capital had phoned the local police to lend all sorts of help” to Imran, who it described as a White House staffer with political sway.
“Imran got another fraud case registered against the majority of claimants with Sargodha Road police apparently to force them to withdraw potential cases against his father,” the article said, saying the police were “harassing the complainants” after then-28-year-old Imran claimed that the farmers, who were as old as 70, “subjected him to severe torture and snatched Rs 4 million from him,” the article said. One of the farmers said that was impossible and that they would swear on the Quran that none of them were even near the location of the supposed torture.
Bushra Bibi, whose husband was one of Imran’s father’s business partners, said that immediately after her husband died, “Imran was threatening her with dire consequences for not transferring the remaining properties to his father’s name” and “they have also implicated my brother-in-law, Saeed, who lives in Lahore and works in the agriculture department, in a false case.”
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