Bar fight and DUI car crash: Conduct of Democrat-picked congressional ethics chief gains scrutiny

2015 internal probe found Omar Ashmawy engaged in "lapse of judgement" by using congressional email to press police to file criminal charges after a bar fight.

Published: December 8, 2022 7:06pm

Updated: December 9, 2022 11:29am

Omar Ashmawy, the chief of the Congressional Ethics Office, has returned to duty just weeks after crashing his car into a Pennsylvania home in September and being charged with driving under the influence, but Republicans about to take control of the House in January are raising fresh concerns about his past conduct and his performance in the sensitive job.

The senior Republicans on the House Administration, Ethics, and Rules Committees have been briefed on the September 2022 DUI incident as well as a 2015 bar fight during which Ashmawy was injured but was later found to have improperly used his congressional position to pressure police to file criminal charges against his antagonists, according to internal correspondence and memos obtained by Just the News.

In the 2015 episode, an independent counsel named by the House to investigate concluded that Ashmawy "attempted to improperly exert pressure" on local police by using his official congressional emails and commenting that "people in Washington DC were following the decision of local authorities," according to information the cochairmen of the congressional board that supervises Ashmawy sent lawmakers recently.

Ashmawy was also sued by one of the men in the fight, a former Transportation Security Administration air marshal, who accused Ashmawy of improperly trying to get him criminally charged and fired from his job. The man wasn't charged but lost his job. Ashmawy settled the lawsuit by making a small cash payment without admitting any wrongdoing, according to letters and other memos sent to lawmakers.

Ashmawy escaped further discipline for the 2015 incident, according to one of the letters.

"Though it did not condone Mr. Ashmawy's use of his official account in this manner, the Board did not discipline him for it," cochairmen Michael D. Barnes and Paul Vinovich wrote the lawmakers in late October, attaching a copy of the internal investigative report on the bar fight. "Having been beaten, severely injured, hospitalized and then sued by one of his assailants, the Board concluded this lapse in judgement did not warrant further punishment and concluded the matter."

The board members in separate correspondence in late November also advised Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) on House Administration, Tom Cole (R-Okla.) on House Rules and Michael Guest (R-Miss.) on House Ethics that Ashmawy was likely to avoid criminal penalty for the DUI charges from September by entering alcohol abuse treatment and a special prosecution program for Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition. He had been placed on leave after his arrest, but returned to duty Dec. 1, the letter says.

"Upon successful completion of the ARD program, any pending charges against Mr. Ashmawy will be dismissed and his record will be expunged," the cochairmen wrote. "In light of this, the Board has directed Mr. Ashmawy to return to his prior position."

The board cochairmen said they had confirmed Ashmawy had complied with counseling. "We have received a report from his counselor from the outpatient treatment program which affirms he is participating successfully and meeting all program requirements," they wrote.

Davis, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, said several of his Republican colleagues are concerned by Ashmawy's conduct and the image it creates for an office expected to uphold the highest standards in Congress, including referring members and their staffs for ethics investigations.

"I think he should resign," Davis told the "Just the News, No Noise" television show on Thursday night. "And I think he should be embarrassed enough to resign. Nobody in that type of position should have multiple instances like he's had."

Later in the interview, Davis added: "I've got to believe there are a lot of people in America with better standards, less of a record than Mr. Ashmawy who could clearly do a better job of gauging which investigations should come to the House Ethics Committee and which should not."

Ashmawy did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent to his office through its official media affairs website and to his official congressional email address. But after his DUI arrest came to light, he told Yahoo News the incident had been a "wakeup call."

"I've had some medical issues including a diagnosis of syncope that I am dealing with in this case, but this incident was a wake-up call to me that I have a problem with alcohol dependency," he told the news site. "I've since sought out treatment for my use of alcohol, and I'm currently in a program where I am addressing this dependency. I'm grateful for the continued support of my family, friends and colleagues."

Ashmawy is an Air Force veteran and lawyer who was named during Nancy Pelosi's first tenure as House Speaker to oversee the new Office of Congressional Ethics as staff director and chief counsel. The move was designed to create an independent voice that reviews ethical complaints against lawmakers and their staffs and decides which get referred to the House Ethics Committee for investigation. As such, it was removed from the oversight of lawmakers and put under the leadership of an independent bipartisan oversight board.

The documents obtained by Just the News make clear that the board has been aware of both episodes but chosen not to escalate punishment against Ashmawy.

In the independent counsel investigation of the Feb. 14, 2015 bar fight, Ashmawy did not offer a justification for using his congressional email to press police and prosecutors in Milford, Pa., to prosecute his attackers, the final report states. "Mr. Ashmawy does have a private e-mail account and had no explanation of why he uses house e-mail account to conduct communications with the Milford authorities," the report said.

In one of the emails the independent counsel cited, Ashmawy clearly suggested people in Washington "have taken an interest in this matter and are concerned" a prosecution decision had "languished" either because he wasn't from the town or because of "my ethnicity as an Arab-American and Muslim."

Davis, Cole and Guest wrote in October after being briefed on the two episodes that they were particularly concerned by Ashmawy's judgment in the 2015 matter. "The allegations surrounding his alleged abuse of power and attempts to influence law enforcement are exceptionally worrisome,” they wrote. "This is an unacceptable pattern of behavior and raises several important questions that must be answered."

You read that letter here:

The independent counsel concluded the bar fight began with an "unprovoked attack" on Ashmawy, dismissing other witness claims that Ashmawy was the aggressor as not credible. But the probe concluded his subsequent conduct raised concerns, saying revelations Ashmawy tried to use his congressional job to press officials in a law enforcement matter would "reflect poorly on the Office" if they became public.

"Mr. Ashmawy has a particularly sensitive position as chief counsel and is called upon to make judgments about the propriety of others who are members or work for the House," the report noted.

Also "troubling," the investigator wrote, was "Mr. Ashmawy suggesting that important people (presuming including the board members) are suggesting that he is being discriminated against because of his ethnicity and religion."

The report recommended he be admonished for his misjudgment.

Davis told Just the News he plans to "do a lot more work" before he retires in four weeks to suggest reforms that his colleagues can consider in the next Congress to instill more confidence in the congressional ethics office and how it is managed by its independent board. He revealed that his review of the office found a disparate number of ethics investigations for Republicans compared to Democrats.

"It's about 60% of Republicans that get referred and only about 40% Democrats," he said. "And frankly, you know, we need to look a little more at what this office is doing."

The congressman said he was also troubled by police documents from the recent DUI incident indicating Ashmawy initially tried to tell the homeowner he would pay for the damages if police were not called to the scene. The homeowner also confirmed that allegation in an interview with Yahoo News, quoting Ashmawy as saying: "Don't do that. Don't don't call the police. Come on. Don't do that."

"This is a gentleman who while intoxicated, drove his car into a house and then tried to make sure that the police were not going to engage in that issue," Davis said.

"I've got a lot more work to do in the next few weeks," the lawmaker added. "And I still have to make sure that we hold this board and the Office of Congressional Ethics accountable for their actions."

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