A top congressional ethics official who oversees investigations into misconduct by lawmakers is accused in a federal lawsuit of verbally abusing and physically assaulting women and using his federal position to influence local law enforcement, according to a complaint filed in a federal court in Pennsylvania last month.
The ongoing lawsuit against Omar Ashmawy, staff director and chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics, stems from his involvement in a late-night brawl in 2015 in Milford, Pennsylvania, and includes a range of allegations relating to his behavior that evening and in the following two-and-half years.
Ashmawy’s office conducts the preliminary investigations into allegations of misconduct in the House of Representatives, deciding which cases to pursue or refer to the Committee on Ethics. He is named in congressional documents as the official who presented one of the investigations into John Conyers, the Democratic lawmaker from Michigan accused of sexual harassment, to the ethics committee for further action.
Among other allegations, Ashmawy is accused in the lawsuit of “threatening to use his position as staff director and chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics to induce a criminal proceeding to be brought against Plaintiff and/or others,” according to the federal lawsuit filed against him.
In court filings and in statements to Foreign Policy, Ashmawy denied the allegations laid out in the lawsuit.
“To be clear, I did not harass anyone that evening, physically or verbally,” he wrote in a statement to FP. “To the contrary, I was the victim of a wholly unprovoked assault for which those responsible were investigated, arrested and charged. Any allegation to the contrary is unequivocally false.”
The lawsuit, previously unreported, stems from Feb. 14, 2015 — Valentine’s Day. The evening appeared to start off well for Ashmawy: a nearly $400 dinner with his girlfriend at an upscale restaurant in Milford, followed by late-night drinks at a local bar.
It ended, however, with him bruised and bloody in the back of a police car.
Two months later, three men were arrested for assaulting Ashmawy. One of those men, Greg Martucci, is now suing Ashmawy in federal court in Pennsylvania in connection to the events of that night.
What exactly led to the physical altercation is in dispute, but in police statements reviewed by FP, three women at the bar that night, including the bartender, accuse Ashmawy of harassing and physically assaulting them.
A former Air Force officer who prosecuted two of the early post-9/11 military tribunal cases, Ashmawy has been a rising star on Capitol Hill in recent years. He was profiled in the Washington Post, which described his job overseeing “the first independent office in history charged with overseeing the ethics of the House of Representatives.” He was also featured earlier this year in Politico’s “birthday of the day,” where he describes his job as helping the “House of Representatives uphold ethical standards by investigating allegations of misconduct by members, staff or officers of the House.”
Ashmawy’s office sits at the center of multiple ongoing, high-profile congressional investigations. Its recent work includes a probe into California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes’s midnight trip to the White House in March. The investigation led to Nunes stepping down from the committee investigating Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election, according to Office of Congressional Ethics website and news reports. (Earlier this month, the full ethics committee cleared Nunes of misconduct.)
According to the website of the Office of Congressional Ethics, it has pursued investigations into Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) and Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), whose cases, like that of Conyers, began under Ashmawy and were referred to the ethics committee for further investigation. The New York Times this week reported that Republicans are citing a 2015 decision by the Office of Congressional Ethics clearing Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who has also been accused of sexual harassment.
Ashmawy has also, according to travel disclosures, visited Ukraine, Kosovo, and Georgia to assist governments there in setting up their own ethics and government oversight bodies. He gives talks overseas and in the United States on investigating lawmaker misconduct and on the importance of ethical behavior in and after government service.
Yet the complaint filed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania against Ashmawy, as well as documents related to the case and police and witness statements, raise questions about Ashmawy’s conduct.
According to the complaint, Martucci on the night of Feb. 14, 2015, witnessed “an extremely violent and belligerent” Ashmawy become verbally abusive toward two women at Milford’s Dimmick Inn, Dawn Jorgenson — the wife of John Jorgenson, the owner of the bar — and Joey Lynn Smith, a bartender there.
Martucci also said he saw Ashmawy physically assaulting Dawn Jorgenson and Christina Floyd, another woman at the bar, a claim echoed in police statements given by the women and reviewed by FP.
According to a three-page statement dated March 12, 2015, Dawn Jorgenson said she witnessed Ashmawy “clearly sexually harassing” the bartender throughout the course of the evening and saw his behavior spiral toward physical violence. “You’ll give me drinks, but you won’t f** me,” Ashmawy allegedly said to the bartender, according to Dawn Jorgenson’s written statement.
She said she then saw Ashmawy block the bartender with his body and curse at her, and grab her by the wrists. Dawn Jorgenson said when she tried to intervene, Ashmawy turned against her. “He’s holding my wrist so tightly that he falls down to the ground landing to the left of me,” she wrote in her statement.
She said her husband, John Jorgenson, came over to help and pulled Ashmawy away, taking him outside.
In statements given to police, the third woman, Christina Floyd, provided a similar account. “I watched each time Omar would come down and verbally sexually harass the bartender as he ordered drinks,” Floyd wrote in her statement, describing an increasingly angry Ashmawy confronting the bartender.
“I am a 5 foot 3 woman who never knew this man. I was very scared of him and was afraid he’d come back around for weeks after,” Floyd wrote of Ashmawy in her statement to police dated March 14, 2015. “I have never had a man physically harm me or scare me in that matter. He was sexually harassing, abusing and I feared for my life.”
According to Floyd, Ashmawy was “sexually harassing and verbally abusive” to the bartender. She also said Ashmawy was “very intoxicated,” an allegation that is backed up by the police report.
The two other women described abuse at the hands of Ashmawy that same night, providing similar details. Ashmawy did not respond to FP’s follow-up email with additional questions, including if he was intoxicated that evening.
Two other people at the bar that night, however, said they saw only the men drag out Ashmawy—and did not witness his alleged attacks on the women.
One of those witnesses is referenced in Ashmawy’s Dec. 6 brief in support of his motion to dismiss. The brief says the witness “called 911 after witnessing Defendant Ashmawy be attacked by three men and then one of the men involved in the attack dragging him outside” and it “seemed like the men set up Defendant Ashmawy ‘to get jumped.’” (A police report reviewed by FP confirms that the witness who called police was concerned “it wasn’t a fair fight.”)
What all sides appeared to agree on is that, at the end of the evening, Ashmawy was injured.
Months after the incident, three men were charged with assaulting Ashmawy, including Martucci. Ashmawy was never arrested or charged with a crime (a police report from the evening says Ashmawy was the only one at the scene with visible injuries).
Martucci is now suing Ashmawy in a Pennsylvania federal court, accusing him of a range of unethical and possibly criminal conduct tied to the 2015 bar fight and subsequent legal proceedings. Also named in the suit is Milford’s police chief and the borough of Milford.
In his lawsuit, Martucci accuses Ashmawy of using his political power and position with the Office of Congressional Ethics to pressure the police and the district attorney into not arresting him for assaulting the women. Martucci also alleges that Ashmawy threatened federal investigation of local government and police if they did not press charges against those accusing him of assault.
An email reviewed by FP from Ashmawy, using his congressional affiliation, to the police chief and officials at the district attorney’s office accuses them of not handling the case properly.
“As of today it has been over five weeks since I was assaulted. To date, the police department’s investigation is not complete and charges have not been filed. I am deeply concerned,” he wrote in the email, which is signed with his congressional title and work mail address.
Ashmawy cites his injuries, which he said included a facial fracture and a “bruised and bloodied” eye.
In the same email, Ashmawy references his own work conducting investigations, and indicates that if charges aren’t filed the case might attract high-level attention in the capital.
“There is no hiding what happened to me from the people I interact with on a day to day basis,” he wrote. “As result, there are a growing number of individuals in the Washington, DC community who have taken an interest in this matter and are concerned that one of the reasons this matter has languished is because I’m not a resident of Milford, PA. I’ve assured them that isn’t true. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that my ethnicity, as an Arab-American and Muslim, might also be a factor in the delayed investigation and the charging of the individuals responsible. I’ve explained that is unlikely.”
An attorney representing the town and police chief in the lawsuit declined to comment on why charges weren’t filed against Ashmawy in light of the women’s statements to police.
“Please be advised that the official response on behalf of Milford Borough and Chief DaSilva is ‘No comment during the course of pending litigation,’” Sheryl L. Brown, an attorney with the firm Siana Bellwoar, wrote FP in response to queries.
She noted that a motion to dismiss the case was pending with the court, and then threatened legal action against FP. “We reserve the right to subpoena unprivileged portions of your files considering you assert you are in possession of ‘police statements from witnesses…,’” she wrote.
Ashmawy’s version of events from that evening is markedly different. In his statement to police that night, Ashmawy wrote there was a conflict with women at the bar, but it stemmed from “a previous altercation” between his girlfriend and the bartender.
The bartender “spoke fighting words to me,” he wrote, adding that the two other women “abruptly came up to me.”
At that point, Ashmawy said, three men assaulted him, choked him, and threw him to the ground. “My handwriting is affected by the fact that I have only the sight of one eye and I’m bleeding from multiple wounds to include my eye and my lip,” he wrote in his statement to police.
“This matter was fully investigated. I was the victim, and the men responsible were arrested and charged,” he wrote in a statement to FP. “The three assailants attacked me without any provocation whatsoever, and any suggestion to contrary is nothing but an exercise in slander.”
The three men eventually charged in the assault were John Jorgenson, the bar owner, Tim Reilly, and Martucci. Each was charged with three counts relating to the alleged assault. The first two pled guilty to one misdemeanor charge, but the prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against Martucci, a federal air marshal, and the case against him was expunged in October 2016.
While the case proceeded, however, Martucci was suspended from his federal air marshal job without pay and then later fired. In response to a request for comment about Martucci, the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the Federal Air Marshal Service, said that Martucci was no longer employed with the agency and refused to answer questions about the incident or internal investigation.
Martucci filed the lawsuit against Ashmawy in September.
On Dec. 6, Ashmawy filed a brief in support of his earlier motion to dismiss, saying he was acting as an “individual who was a victim of an assault and pursued his legal remedies to their established conclusion.”
The police chief and borough of Milford have filed similar motions to dismiss. A case management conference with all parties’ attorneys before the presiding judge is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2018.
“These criminal charges, which Mr. Martucci successfully had dismissed, derailed my client’s career and affected his livelihood,” Martucci’s lawyer, Ryan Lockman, told FP. “Mr. Martucci eagerly awaits the opportunity to proceed with his claims.”
SOURCE: Foreign Policy, Jana Winter