Imran Awan thought he was living the American dream.
As a teenager in Pakistan, Awan spent money he received during the Muslim holiday of Eid on an application for the United States’ green card lottery and won. After immigrating with his family to northern Virginia, Awan built his life from almost nothing to become a shared IT employee for dozens of House Democrats, eventually landing similar jobs in the House for three family members and a friend.
But early in the Trump era, Awan found himself hounded by House Republicans, the Justice Department, and the conservative media. Thanks to conspiracy theories propagated in right-wing media outlets, Awan was turned from a total unknown into an arch-villain, accused of spying for Pakistan, extortion, and even murder. Seeking to deflect attention from the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, Trump demanded prosecutors look into Awan, dubbing him “the Pakistani Fraudster.”
“We just had everything going for us,” Awan told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview in March 2021. “Until that happened.”
After an exhaustive FBI investigation, Awan ultimately pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge of making false statements to obtain a loan related to rental properties. His plea deal, which came with no prison time, included an unusual condition: a statement from prosecutors saying they had found no evidence tying Awan to all the other, far more serious crimes that conservative media outlets had accused him of.
Awan talked for the first time about how his life and the lives of his family and friends were destroyed by stories in the conservative media, led by a reporter for the right-wing Daily Caller. The attacks were often tinged with Islamophobia and racism—one anti-Muslim blogger claimed Awan ran a “Muslim spy ring.”
Awan, who has returned to Pakistan, thinks he made an easy target for Republican conspiracy theorists because he was a Muslim immigrant.
“If I was a white guy, with all due respect, nothing would have happened,” Awan said.
Awan’s story echoes the damage wrought by other conspiracy theories, like Pizzagate or the targeting of the families of the 2012 Sandy Hook victims and the grieving parents of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. But unlike those conspiracy theories, Awan’s saga is nearly entirely unknown outside of conservative media. Awan remains a villain for the millions of Americans who rely on right-wing media outlets to understand the world, the unwitting star of what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has dubbed “possibly the largest scandal and coverup in the history of the United States House of Representatives.”
“These people are not stopping,” Awan said. “I can’t move on with my life. How am I supposed to provide for my children?”
Now, like those other victims of conspiracy theories, Awan is suing the conservative media figures who pursued him. In 2020, Awan, along with the family members and friend who worked in congressional offices with him, filed a defamation lawsuit in a local District of Columbia court over the articles. They’re suing The Daily Caller, a related nonprofit, conservative media conglomerate Salem Media, and former Daily Caller reporter Luke Rosiak, who also wrote a book about Awan.
In December, the lawsuit survived an early challenge in court. A judge ruled the Awans don’t qualify as “limited-use public figures,” a designation that would have weakened their defamation case. While at least one of the defendants plans to appeal that ruling, the case could soon proceed to discovery, which would give Awans’ lawyers insight into how the right-wing outlets handled the articles and book about him.
“They’ve essentially destroyed my life,” Awan said.
Lawyers for Salem Media didn’t respond to requests for comment. Rosiak’s legal team, which includes a lawyer frequently used by InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, also didn’t respond to an email.
In a statement, an attorney for The Daily Caller and its related nonprofit, The Daily Caller News Foundation, said the publication is sticking by its stories about Awan.
“We are confident in the accuracy of what was reported by The Daily Caller and we look forward to having that established when we have our day in court,” the statement read.
Awan’s troubles began in 2016, when House investigators noticed unusual network traffic carried out by five IT staffers: Awan, his wife Hina Alvi, his brothers Jamal and Abid Awan, and his friend Rao Abbas. The five staffers worked across a combined 36 Democratic offices, though they weren’t each employed by every office. House investigators noted that Awan and his associates also seemed to deliberately underplay equipment purchases to keep them under $500— a common tactic in House offices to avoid triggering procurement rules.
As the Capitol Police launched an investigation of the five staffers, Awan and his four fellow IT workers were banned from the House systems. The Daily Caller seized on that news to portray Democratic offices as penetrated by sinister figures, with a February 2017 article from Rosiak declaring that key House committees had been “compromised by rogue IT staff.”
A later investigation would find only that the staffers had shared login credentials to cover work for one another, even if the fill-in staffer didn’t have permission to work in a member’s office. They also inappropriately used a House server to store personal files like photos and their children’s homework—a potential violation of data security rules, but hardly a spying scandal.
As Rosiak delved into every aspect of the five staffers’ lives, his reporting helped set off a firestorm of attention on the right. With them unable to work because of their ban from the House computer system, Democratic lawmakers fired Awan and the other staffers. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) defended Awan, briefly hiring him as an adviser and claiming his due process rights were being violated, but ultimately he lost that job as well.
“Everybody looked at us like we were really a dangerous, evil people,” Awan said.
In January 2017, Awan’s father died of cancer. Under the pressure of his father’s death, the FBI investigation, and the right-wing media storm, Awan attempted to kill himself. He was committed for a week to a mental hospital, where he says he sometimes had to be restrained as a suicide risk.
“It was just overwhelming,” Awan said. “I wanted to end my life, and I attempted to end my life. It was such a bad, bad thing. I remember just having the most incredible amount of depression where I just wanted to kill myself.”
Like Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer murdered in 2016 in what police consider a botched robbery, Awan became an intriguing scapegoat for Republicans looking to distract attention from Russian hackers’ thefts of Democratic emails in 2016.
“What if he was the source to WikiLeaks?” Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera asked in a television appearance.
Newly unemployed and targeted by angry Trump supporters, Awan grew terrified of threats against his family’s life. He pulled his daughters out of school because he was worried about their safety. He thought of the day in December 2016, when a gunman motivated by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory fired shots inside Comet Ping Pong.
“Just like they went with a gun into a pizza shop, they could do the same to me,” Awan said. “And not only me, they could harm my children as well.”
In July 2017, FBI agents arrested Awan as he tried to fly to Pakistan. Awan and his wife were charged with bank fraud over two home-equity loans, accused of claiming they lived in properties they actually rented out. The charges had nothing to do with their work in the House, or the various crimes right-wing media outlets had accused them of. Awan claims he took out the loans to obtain money to send to Pakistan to help his ill father. By the time Awan was charged, he had already paid back the loan.
Awan’s arrest on a relatively minor charge didn’t stop the conspiracy theories about him. Conservative congressmen like Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Scott Perry (R-PA), and then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) pressed the Justice Department for updates on the case or offered advice on how to pursue it, according to letters obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The accusations against Awan reached their biggest stage in July 2018, when Trump mentioned Awan during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Looking to downplay the role of Russian hackers in the 2016 election, Trump suggested that Awan had somehow stolen DNC servers.
“The servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC are missing,” Trump said.
Awan pleaded guilty to the false statement charge a few weeks later, receiving three months of supervised release and the dismissal of charges against his wife. U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan said Awan had faced “baseless accusations” and “scurrilous media attention.” Chutkan waived a roughly $4,000 fee Awan was expected to pay to cover the cost of his supervision.
Awan’s plea agreement with the Justice Department included a nearly unprecedented admission, with prosecutors and investigators saying they had found no proof during their lengthy investigation that Awan had stolen or tampered with House technology equipment, or stolen data.
“The Government has found no evidence that [Awan] illegally removed House data from the House network or from House Members’ offices, stole the House Democratic Caucus Server, stole or destroyed House information technology equipment, or improperly accessed or transferred government information, including classified or sensitive information,” the statement read in part.
Awan thought that that provision of the plea would mark the end of speculation about himself and his family. The FBI had interviewed roughly 40 people, according to the plea, and found no evidence he had broken federal laws connected to his work in the House.
“Maybe if the staffer’s name was Ed Smith, this would have been the end of a fairly uninteresting story,” former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) wrote in an op-ed in 2018.
In January 2019, however, Rosiak and conservative publisher Regnery, a division of Salem Media, published Rosiak’s book about Awan. Entitled Obstruction of Justice: How the Deep State Risked National Security to Protect the Democrats, the book featured Awan’s face on the cover. Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson wrote admiring blurbs, while Gingrich wrote the foreword.
In the book, Rosiak includes a series of lurid accusations against Awan, including someone claiming Awan had boasted about having his enemies in Pakistan raped by police officers. Rosiak portrayed the Justice Department’s failure to find evidence of the accusations against Awan as part of a cover-up carried out by both parties. The plea deal wasn’t a sign that Rosiak had wasted two years reporting trumped-up stories about the IT staffer, but of endemic Washington corruption.
Rosiak kept up the claims during his book tour, describing Awan in one interview as “basically an attempted murderer, an extortionist, a blackmail artist, a con man.” Rosiak’s book proved to be a hit, nearly reaching the top of Amazon’s sales charts.
“While they destroyed our lives, they made money,” Awan said. “Daily Caller made money. Luke Rosiak made money. Salem Media made money.”
For Awan, it felt like even having a Justice Department led by Trump appointees disprove the accusations against him wasn’t enough to clear his name. On a trip to Pakistan, he lay down on his father’s grave, feeling like he couldn’t get up. Awan once again wanted to die.
“My life is completely destroyed,” Awan recalls thinking.
For Awan’s defenders, the idea that violating House rules around shared logins could somehow justify the national attention Awan and his family received was ridiculous. They see the Awans as victims of conservative media that targeted them for being Muslim immigrants. In 2020, Congress paid Awan and the four other fired staffers $850,000 as part of a wrongful termination settlement.
Now that Awan’s case has survived an initial challenge in court, his lawyers hope it will serve as an example for future lawsuits against conspiracy theorists.
"How does misinformation hurt people and how does the legal system deal with it?” Deepak Gupta, one of Awan’s attorneys, said. “Because it's increasingly public figures attacking ordinary citizens and saying horrible things about them that then kind of destroys their lives.”
Awan watched on TV on Jan. 6, 2021, as Trump supporters assaulted the U.S. Capitol, where he once worked.
“They destroyed my life and then they attack the United States of America,” Awan said. “This is just so sad.”