Let’s say you’re a prosecutor in Washington. You are investigating a husband and wife, naturalized Americans, who you believe have scammed a federal credit union out of nearly $300,000. You catch them in several false statements about their qualifications for a credit line and their intended use of the money. The strongest part of your case, though, involves the schemers’ transferring the loot to their native Pakistan.
So . . . what’s the best evidence you could possibly have, the slam-dunk proof that their goal was to steal the money and never look back? That’s easy: One after the other, the wife and husband pulled up stakes and tried to high-tail it to Pakistan after they’d wired the funds there — the wife successfully fleeing, the husband nabbed as he was about to board his flight.
Well, here’s a peculiar thing about the Justice Department’s indictment of Imran Awan and Hina Alvi, the alleged fraudster couple who doubled as IT wizzes for Debbie Wasserman Schultz and many other congressional Democrats: There’s not a word in it about flight to Pakistan. The indictment undertakes to describe in detail four counts of bank-fraud conspiracy, false statements on credit applications, and unlawful monetary transactions, yet leaves out the most damning evidence of guilt.
In fact, the indictment appears to go out of its way not to mention it.
I’ll get back to that in a second. First, let’s recap. As I explained about three weeks ago, there is a very intriguing investigation of the Awan family. There are about six of them — brothers, spouses, and attached others — who were retained by various Democrats as computer-systems managers at compensation levels dwarfing that of the average congressional staffer. The Awans fell under suspicion in late 2016 and were canned at the beginning of February, on suspicion of mishandling the sensitive information to which they’d had access: scanning members’ e-mail, transferring files to remote servers under the Awans’ control, stealing computer equipment and hard drives (some of which they attempted to destroy when they were found out), along with a sideline in procurement fraud.
We should say that almost all of them were canned. Hina Alvi and her husband, Imran Awan, stayed on, even though they were no longer authorized to have access to the House computer system (i.e., to do the work they were hired to do). Alvi continued to be retained by Congressman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, for another four weeks. During that time, we now know, she was tying up loose financial ends, packing her house up, and pulling three young daughters out of school — just before skedaddling to Pakistan.
Awan was kept on the payroll for about six more months by Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, and Clinton insider. She finally fired him only after he was arrested at the airport right before a scheduled flight to Qatar, from whence he planned to join Alvi in Pakistan.
There are grounds to suspect blackmail, given (a) the staggering sums of money paid to the Awans over the years, (b) the sensitive congressional communications to which they had access, (c) the alleged involvement of Imran Awan and one of his brothers in a blackmail-extortion scheme against their stepmother, and (d) Wasserman Schultz’s months of protecting Awan and potentially impeding the investigation. There are also, of course, questions about stolen information. And there is, in addition, the question I raised a month ago: Why did the FBI and the Capitol Police allow Hina Alvi to leave the country on March 5 when there were grounds to arrest her at Dulles Airport? Why did they wait to charge her until last week — by which time she was safely in Pakistan, from which it will likely be impossible to extradite her for prosecution?
What, moreover, about Awan’s brothers and other apparent accomplices? What has become of them since they were fired by the House almost seven months ago?
The indictment raises still more questions.
Imran Awan’s sudden arrest in late July meant the Justice Department would finally have to file formal charges in court. Thus, there was hope that we’d finally get some answers. Instead, the indictment raises still more questions.
To begin with, it is not the easiest thing to get one’s hands on the indictment. The case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. There is no press release about the indictment on the office’s website, though U.S. attorneys’ offices routinely issue press releases and make charging documents available in cases of far less national prominence. (I found the indictment through the Orlando Sentinel, which obtained and posted it in conjunction with the paper’s report on the filing of charges.)
By the way, the U.S. attorney’s office is currently led by Channing D. Phillips, an Obama holdover who was never confirmed. Still awaiting Senate confirmation is Jessie Liu, nominated by President Trump in June. Meanwhile, Steven Wasserman, Representative Wasserman Schultz’s brother, has been an assistant U.S. attorney in the office for many years. I have seen no indication that he has any formal role in the case, notwithstanding some cyberspace speculation to the contrary. What is clear, however, is that the office is low-keying the Awan prosecution.
The indictment itself is drawn very narrowly. All four charges flow from a financial-fraud conspiracy of short duration. Only Imran Awan and his wife are named as defendants. There is no reference to Awan-family perfidy in connection with the House communications system.
More bizarre still: There is not a word about Alvi’s flight to Pakistan, nor Imran Awan’s failed attempt to follow her there. This is not an oversight. The omission appears quite intentional.
It is common Justice Department practice, in pleading a conspiracy indictment, to allege that the scheme began “on or about” its starting date and continued “up to and including the date of the filing of this indictment.” Strictly speaking, a conspiracy ends when the crime that is its objective has been completed. But there is no requirement that a specific end date be set forth in the indictment. Therefore, prosecutors go as long as they can — i.e., right up to the date the grand jury voted to indict — to give themselves the widest berth possible to argue that evidence damaging to the defense is relevant and admissible.
But that is not what happened in the Awan indictment. The Justice Department alleges that the conspiracy took place “from on or about December 12, 2016 through on or about February 27, 2017.” February 27 was six days before Alvi fled and five months before Awan was arrested trying to leave the country.
This makes no sense. Indeed, it does not even make sense in the context of the narrow scheme prosecutors have charged: Although the indictment says the conspiracy ended on February 27, it alleges a relevant $83,000 interbank transfer occurred on February 28 (see indictment, paragraphs 8 and 22). That is, prosecutors assert that a money transfer supposedly in furtherance of the conspiracy happened a day after the conspiracy was already over.
That is surely just a mistake — anybody can screw up a date. There is, by contrast, no apparent explanation for omitting from a fraudulent cash-transfer prosecution the fact that the conspirators undertook to transfer themselves to the foreign country where they’d sent the money.
Why would prosecutors leave that out of their indictment? Why give Awan’s defense a basis to claim that, since the indictment does not allege anything about flight to Pakistan, the court should bar any mention of it during the trial? In fact, quite apart from the manifest case-related reasons to plead instances of flight, a competent prosecutor would have included them in the indictment simply to underscore that Awan is a flight risk who should have onerous bail conditions or even be detained pretrial.
We must also ask, again: Why did the FBI allow Alvi to flee? Before she boarded her March 5 flight to Qatar (en route to Pakistan), agents briefly detained her. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had already searched her baggage and found $12,400 in cash. As I have pointed out, it is a felony to move more than $10,000 in U.S. currency out of the country unless one completes the required government report (see sections 5316 and 5322 of Title 31, U.S. Code). There was no indication that she did so in the complaint affidavit submitted to the court when Awan was arrested last month (see FBI complaint affidavit, pages 8–9).
By the time Alvi fled, the Awans had been under investigation by various federal agencies for at least three months. The FBI was sufficiently attuned to the Awans’ criminality that its agents went to the trouble of chasing Alvi to the airport. If she didn’t fill out the required form, she should have been arrested for the currency violation. Is it possible that, rather than arresting her, federal agents instructed her to complete the form on the spot? One would hope not, but even in such an unlikely event, Alvi would undoubtedly have made false statements about the provenance of the cash. That would also have been a felony, providing more grounds for her arrest. Why let her go, especially when, as its agent told the court in the aforementioned affidavit, the FBI “does not believe that ALVI has any intention to return to the United States”?
The indictment is an exercise in omission.
More bizarre: Why not include Alvi’s flight — as well as Awan’s later attempt to go on the lam — in describing the money-transfer scheme charged in the indictment? Patently, these episodes are damning proof of fraudulent intent, which prosecutors must establish at trial if they are to convict Awan. Did prosecutors fail to mention the flight evidence in hope of diverting attention from the government’s decision to let Alvi flee? Again, one would hope not, but if not, what could the explanation be?
To summarize, the indictment is an exercise in omission. No mention of the Awan group’s theft of information from Congress. Not a hint about the astronomical sums the family was paid, much of it for no-show “work.” Not a word about Wasserman Schultz’s keeping Awan on the payroll for six months during which (a) he was known to be under investigation, (b) his wife was known to have fled to Pakistan, and (c) he was not credentialed to do the IT work for which he had been hired. Nothing about Wasserman Schultz’s energetic efforts to prevent investigators from examining Awan’s laptop. A likely currency-transportation offense against Alvi goes uncharged. And, as for the offenses that are charged, prosecutors plead them in a manner that avoids any reference to what should be their best evidence.
There is something very strange going on here.