A former House information-technology staffer who became the center of fevered right-wing conspiracy theories about espionage and extortion filed a lawsuit Tuesday against The Daily Caller, alleging the conservative website defamed him and his relatives.
The 23-page complaint from former Democratic IT staffer Imran Awan was filed Tuesday afternoon in D.C. Superior Court. Awan and the other plaintiffs—his wife, two of his brothers, and a friend, all of whom worked with Awan in Democratic House IT services—named as defendants The Daily Caller, the nonprofit Daily Caller News Foundation, DCNF reporter Luke Rosiak, and conservative publisher Regnery, which published a 2019 book Rosiak wrote about Awan. The Daily Caller was founded in 2010 by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The Awans’ lawsuit accused the defendants of both defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, subjecting them to “a relentless, xenophobic campaign of defamatory attacks.” The Awans’ lawyer, Deepak Gupta, told The Daily Beast that the heart of the complaint lies in the notion that “the victims of fake news and right wing conspiracies are not just our politics and our discourse—it’s also real people, whose lives can be ruined.”
“The state of our politics is so polarized and so combative that people can forget that there are real people who might find themselves in the crosshairs,” Gupta said. “That’s what happened here.”
The Awans claimed that they received death threats, were forced to move, and their children were forced to change schools as a result of The Daily Caller stories. One of the plaintiffs attempted suicide, according to the complaint.
“It’s hard to overstate the degree to which this has ruined their lives,” Gupta said. “They lost their jobs. Their children were targeted.”
“This all put a strain on Imran and Hina’s marriage,” he added.
Awan immigrated to the United States from Pakistan as a teenager, and his relatives were thrust into pro-Trump conspiracy theories after the House Inspector General investigated their use of House servers and adherence to technology procurement rules. That investigation prompted conservative media outlets like The Daily Caller to portray the Awans as somehow subversive elements within the House, with one story written by Rosiak in 2017 declaring that representatives had been “compromised by rogue IT staff.”
“Other outlets piled on, no doubt aware that a ‘national security scandal’ involving Pakistani-born Muslims would find a predisposed audience,” the lawsuit alleged.
Reporting from The Daily Caller and other conservative outlets fueled speculation on the right-wing internet about the Awans, including claims that they worked for the Pakistani intelligence service or the Muslim Brotherhood. Other outlets seized on the baseless claimed that the Awans, not Russian hackers, were behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee email hacks.
The Daily Caller’s reporting was also picked up by President Donald Trump, who called Awan a “Pakistani fraudster” and a “Pakistani mystery man” in tweets. The president even discussed Awan during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018.
“What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC?” Trump said.
The Awans eventually lost their jobs amid the heightened scrutiny. The House Inspector General report found only that they had shared login credentials, inappropriately used government servers for personal use, and structured some technology purchases to avoid inventory reporting rules. (The Awans’ lawsuit alleged the purchases were made with approval from the Democratic representatives who employed them.)
Imran Awan eventually pleaded guilty to making a false statement on a home loan, which was sparked by a Department of Justice bank fraud investigation his lawyers claim was the result of “political pressure from the highest levels of the Trump Administration.” Awan was charged after falsely claiming a property as his primary residence in an attempt to secure what his lawyers describe as money for his ailing father.
He was sentenced to time served in the case after prosecutors sought no jail time in the case and federal Judge Tanya Chutkan blasted “scurrilous media attention” leveled against him and his family. The stories about Awan and his associates prompted an unusual statement from the Department of Justice in Awan’s plea deal, which disproved speculation about him.
“The Government has uncovered no evidence that your client violated federal law with respect to the House computer systems,” read the plea agreement. “Particularly, the Government has found no evidence that your client 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.”
Despite that, Rosiak kept up his criticisms of the Awan family after the Justice Department statement, according to the complaint, claiming the Awans were involved in blackmail and receiving money from Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Rosiak and Regnery published a book in early 2019 about Awan, Obstruction of Justice: How the Deep State Risked National Security to Protect the Democrats, that quickly rose up the Amazon book sales ranks and earned blurbs from Carlson and fellow Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“People who were not public figures—who were just doing their jobs and living quiet lives—were targeted because of their race and their religion and thrust into the spotlight with a series of conspiracy theories and attacks,” Gupta told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Those claims were amplified on every possible mass communications platform.”
The Awans’ lawsuit alleges that Rosiak’s book is “riddled with outrageous, false, and defamatory attacks against the Awans,” including claims that he “hacked the House,” solicited a cash bribe, and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in government equipment. Awans’ attorneys say Rosiak even claimed that Awan boasted about having his enemies tortured in Pakistan.
“Imran Awan is basically an attempted murderer, an extortionist, a blackmail artist, a con man,” Rosiak said in a July 2019 interview with right-wing newspaper The Epoch Times.
In an appearance on Lou Dobbs’s Fox Business show, Rosiak allegedly implied that the Awans had stolen “millions” from the U.S. government.
“These guys are out free, probably running around in Pakistan with the millions of dollars that they funneled from Congress over to Pakistan,” Rosiak said, according to the lawsuit.
Gupta said the Awans now just want to “clear their names” and “move on.”
“They’re looking for an end to this campaign of lies against them,” he said. “It’s very important that nothing like this be allowed to happen to other people like them.”
The Awans’ lawsuit marks the latest complaint filed by the targets of right-wing conspiracy theories. Their legal team includes two Texas lawyers who have sued conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his InfoWars website on behalf of families whose children were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.
Rosiak, The Daily Caller, and Regnery did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Hina and Imran’s marriage was not “ended” by the conflict described in the lawsuit, as Gupta first stated erroneously.