An IT staffer who worked in the office of former Democratic National Committee chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz was arrested at a Washington DC airport on Monday before boarding a flight to Pakistan.
Imran Awan, 37, from Lorton, Virginia, was charged with bank fraud related to a home loan for a rental property.
But the arrest also captured the interest of the far-right and pro-Trump media, who have been pushing an unfounded conspiracy theory for months that Awan was the leaker of the DNC emails during last year’s election — and not Russian officials, as major US intelligence agencies have concluded. Those accusations intensified after his arrest on Tuesday.
Here’s what we know about the arrest and the background of the case.
The House Investigation
Back in February, Awan, his wife, Hina Alvi, his brother, and two close friends — were named as the five House staffers being investigated as part of a criminal probe into the theft of IT equipment and possible data theft. (The five were technically employees of the House, and would work short stints in different members’ offices, said Chris Gowan, Awan’s attorney.)
BuzzFeed News first reported on the criminal investigation, revealing that Awan and his associates had access to the House of Representatives’ entire computer network. “They said it was some sort of procurement scam, but now I’m concerned that they may have stolen data from us, emails, who knows,” a lawmaker told BuzzFeed News at the time.
According to LegiStorm, Awan earned $164,600 in 2016, and Alvi earned $168,300.
Although several politicians refused to keep employing his four associates after news of the investigation first broke, Awan, who has worked as an IT staffer for House Democrats since 2004, continued to work for Wasserman Schultz’s office.
Politico reported in March that Awan was barred from the House IT networks and that the investigation focused on the equipment of 20 lawmakers.
Back in March, Rep. Gregory Meeks terminated Alvi as an employee of his office, because the investigation was disruptive, he told Politico, but said he feared Alvi and her family were being targeted because of their Pakistani Muslim background.
“I wanted to be sure individuals are not being singled out because of their nationalities or their religion. We want to make sure everybody is entitled to due process,” Meeks said at the time.
“As of right now, I don’t see a smoking gun,” Meeks said. “I have seen no evidence that they were doing anything that was nefarious.”
After a six-month investigation, no charges were filed against them regarding their employment as House IT staffers.
The Bank Fraud Investigation
On Tuesday, Awan was arrested at Dulles Airport before boarding a flight to Lahore, Pakistan.
He pleaded not guilty to the charge that he and his wife, Alvi, engaged in a scheme to defraud the Congressional Federal Credit Union by receiving a $165,000 loan in January 2017 based on a property that they declared was their primary residence — but was actually being rented out, according to the criminal complaint.
That $165,000 was then wired to Pakistan in January, as part of a $283,000 transaction to help buy land there, Gowan said.
Awan was released as part of a “high-intensity supervision program,” said Bill Miller, the spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
“The conditions of release are that he receive a GPS monitor, he abide by a curfew of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that he not leave a 50-mile radius of his residence in Virginia. Awan was also ordered to turn over all of his passports.”
On March 5, FBI agents approached Alvi — who was with her three children — at Dulles Airport before she boarded Qatar Airlines, Flight 708, to Doha, on her way to Lahore, Pakistan, according to the complaint.
Awan had previously alerted his employer and Michael Morando, a US Department of Justice attorney who is the prosecutor of the original procurement investigation, of his plans to travel to Pakistan and visit his wife and children, Gowan said.
The FBI said the children were “abruptly taken out of school without notifying” the school system and that Alvi had several pieces of luggage with her, including cardboard boxes that “contained household goods, clothing, food items and $12,400.”
Though they have a return flight booked for September, the FBI said, special agent Brandon C. Merriman, who wrote the affidavit, added that he does not believe Alvi “had any intention to return to the United States.”
The FBI declined to comment. Capitol Police referred BuzzFeed News to the US Attorney’s Office and declined further comment.
Some more mainstream conservatives — Ronna McDaniel, chair of the GOP, and Sean Davis, cofounder of The Federalist — said Aman was trying to “flee” the US.
Gowan denied that Awan was fleeing.
Instead, his attorney said, his wife and their three children are staying with family in Pakistan “because he and his wife were both abruptly and unjustly fired, leaving them without a reliable source of income to pay typical US living expenses, and because extremist right-wing bloggers were beginning to harass them and their children — even going to their children’s schools.”
Awan remained behind in the US in order to earn extra money for his family, Gowan said, adding that he had a return ticket for January.
Awan was fired by Wasserman Schultz’s office after Tuesday’s arrest. “Mr. Awan previously served as an employee in our office, but his services have been terminated,” said David Damron, her spokesperson.
The Far-Right Media
For months — since the IT investigation was revealed — the far-right and pro-Trump media have tried without evidence to link Awan and his wife, brother, and friends to conspiracy theories, especially those surrounding the release of the DNC emails.
It especially picked up Tuesday, after his arrest.
Alt-right YouTuber George Webb, who has roughly 40,000 subscribers to his channel, has posted numerous videos about Awan and his family.
In February, Webb pushed the unfounded conspiracy theory that the Awan brothers were Pakistani spies — paid and supported by the Democrats and given high-level security clearance — so they could access sensitive material.
In June, WorldNetDaily, a far-right fringe site that pushes unfounded conspiracy theories, had written about the investigation, “The IT workers under investigation are Muslims and Pakistani nationals.”
Webb uploaded another video on Tuesday, in which he is wearing a T-shirt that says “Ask me about the #Awanbrothers” and asserts that Awan and his family were Pakistani spies, leaking US government information.
New-right personality Mike Cernovich tweeted a link to Webb’s latest on Tuesday, just after the arrest, and also called Awan’s arrest “the biggest story of the year.”
Then, as often happens with the far-right and pro-Trump media, the conspiracy theories make their way to the more mainstream outlets.
By Tuesday evening, Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera were openly discussing the unfounded conspiracy theory, saying that they believed Awan, not Russia, leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Rivera: Here, just take this quick scenario: We know that one of the big scandals is that her emails were leaked; she and the DNC were favoring Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. What was WikiLeaks’ source? Everyone had assumed it was the Russians who hacked the DNC and then gave WikiLeaks that information.
Hannity: He’s [Julian Assange] told me personally five times it wasn’t a state or Russia.
Rivera: Maybe he was telling you the truth.
Hannity: Wait a minute: WikiLeaks has not been proven wrong on their information in 11 years — not one time.
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.
And on Wednesday evening, Rod Wheeler — the private detective who ignited the Seth Rich conspiracy theory — began stoking the flames of another conspiracy.
Gowan, Awan’s attorney, told BuzzFeed News those claims “may be the single most ridiculous accusation.”
“He didn’t even have a security clearance,” he said.
“They’re trying to make it out to be like these guys were the top secret computer people. They were literally the guys who installed Word and Excel on your computer, set up your email on your computer. They had no access to any confidential document ever; it’s a completely ridiculous statement,” he added. And Politico, citing House sources, said Awan and his associates didn’t have access to classified information.
Gowan added, in a statement, that the “attacks” on his client and his family come from “anti-Muslim bigotry.”
“For months we have had utterly unsupported, outlandish, and slanderous statements targeting Mr. Awan coming not just from the ultra-right-wing ‘Pizzagate’ media but from sitting members of Congress. Now we have the Justice Department showing up with a complaint about disclosures on a modest real estate matter,” Gowan said.
And Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson for the DNC, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday afternoon, “He was never employed by the DNC. The US intelligence community has concluded that Russia was behind the DNC hack, and any suggestion to the contrary is laughable.”
A preliminary hearing on Awan’s bank fraud charges has been scheduled for Aug 21.