Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has broken her silence in the controversy over a former IT aide whom she kept on the payroll for months despite a criminal probe.
While Republicans are calling for a deeper investigation, Wasserman Schultz defended her handling of the matter in an interview published Thursday in the Sun Sentinel. She blamed the “right-wing media circus fringe” for the attention on former aide Imran Awan.
The former head of the Democratic National Committee suggested it's all part of an effort to distract from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and possible ties to President Trump's team.
“Any opportunity they can to pull people’s eyes and ears away from that they take,” Wasserman Schultz told the newspaper. “The right-wing media circus fringe has immediately focused not on this run-of-the-mill investigation just reporting the facts, but jumped to outrageous egregious conclusions that they were trying to, that they have ties to terrorists and that they were stealing data.”
Her colleagues in Congress, though, say there are serious security implications in her former staffer's case. One Republican is urging the Justice Department to probe the aide’s ties to Pakistan, amid calls for Wasserman Schultz to testify as well.
“We have to investigate how our systems may have been compromised, and that may involve putting people in the [witness] chair,” Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., told “Fox & Friends” earlier this week.
Awan and other IT aides for House Democrats have been on investigators’ radar for months over concerns of possible double-billing, alleged equipment theft, and access to sensitive computer systems. Most lawmakers fired Awan in February, but Schultz kept him on, though he was barred from the House IT network.
Wasserman Schultz, until now, had issued written statements explaining her decisions.
In her new interview, Wasserman Schultz maintained she "did the right thing" and "would do it again." She said they developed a job description to “allow [Awan] to continue to do work ... until such time as there were other charges brought or we had some evidence that there was something that was produced and warranted further action.”
She added: “It would have been easier for me to just fire him.”
Awan was arrested at Dulles International Airport last week as he tried to travel to Pakistan. Awan and his wife are accused of defrauding the Congressional Federal Credit Union by obtaining a $165,000 home equity loan for a rental property they did not own. The funds were then, allegedly, included as part of a large $283,000 wire transfer to two individuals in Pakistan.
Wasserman Schultz fired Awan after his arrest. But in the interview with the Sun Sentinel, she said she believes Awan has come under such scrutiny due to his Muslim faith, and she had “racial and ethnic profiling concerns.”
She said Awan had filed a form to take an unpaid leave of absence with her office, and any conclusions that he was trying to “flee” the country are “absurd.”
“He is from Pakistan,” Wasserman Schultz said. “When you’re trying to flee, you don’t fill out a form with your employer and go on unpaid leave.”
DeSantis, who has been outspoken on the case, penned a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday pointing to the “alarming amount of funds that were wired to Pakistan.”
“The wire transfer to Pakistan is particularly alarming as Pakistan is home to numerous terrorist organizations,” DeSantis wrote to Sessions.
“Is the Department of Justice investigating whether any funds generated from the sale of stolen property of the House of Representatives were included as part of the wire transfer to Faisalbad, Pakistan?” DeSantis wrote, continuing to question whether there would be a court order to freeze the proceeds of the real estate transaction or from the possible sale of technological equipment.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to Fox News' request for comment on Sessions' response to DeSantis' letter.
DeSantis is not alone, as The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), run by former U.S. Attorney Matthew G. Whitaker, also filed a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday, urging an investigation into why Wasserman Schultz kept paying Awan after he was barred from the House computer system.
But Wasserman Schulz’s spokesman David Damron told Fox News that their office worked with the House Chief Administrative Officer to arrange for the employee to keep providing “valuable services without access to the House network.”
“Those services included consulting on a variety of office needs, such as on our website and printers, trouble-shooting, and other issues,” he said, describing the complaint as “entirely baseless” and the work of a “right-wing group” going after one of “Donald Trump’s fiercest critics.”
Awan, 37, of Virginia, pleaded not guilty last Tuesday to the single count of bank fraud.
Attorney Christopher Gowen told Fox News last week that federal authorities have no evidence of misconduct by Awan relating to his IT duties.