Omar Ashmawy was sitting in his office in the old Navy buildings near Capitol Hill early in 2009, trying to figure out what he wanted to do next with his life.
It was his last day as a Judge Advocate General in the U.S. Air Force, and a string of taxing cases had convinced him it was time to move on from his post after eight years.
After defending a woman who was prosecuted in her own gang rape, Ashmawy had gone on to prosecute the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prisoners Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul in the first two cases litigated before a U.S. military tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
When Ashmawy’s wife emailed him a job listing for a position at the newly created Office of Congressional Ethics, he churned out a cover letter and quickly sent in his resume.
“It was a morally ambiguous experience that made me appreciate the clarity of the OCE’s mission,” Ashmawy said of the Air Force cases. “I wanted to stay in public service, to continue to serve my country in some way, and the OCE presented a way for me to do both – to move on and serve my country.”
The office at that point was in its infancy, created to review possible cases of Congressional misconduct. Ashmawy read what he could about its creation online before he went in for an interview with then-Staff Director Leo Wise in the Longworth House Office Building. He was intrigued by the opportunity to be a part of what Wise described as an entrepreneurial venture – the chance to build a new, independent Congressional office from the ground up.
Ashmawy, now 35, was one of the first investigative staffers hired. During the past three and a half years, he rose through the ranks, becoming staff director and chief counsel after Wise left in late 2010 for Maryland’s U.S. attorney’s office, where he prosecutes white-collar crime.
“Omar’s an excellent investigator and a dogged follower of facts who has the ability to do it in a very hostile environment – he went from Guantanamo to the House,” Wise said.
Ashmawy brought a diverse background to the OCE. The half-Egyptian, half-Italian New Jersey native was likely the first practicing Muslim to observe Ramadan in his school district. He received both a bachelor’s in political science with a concentration in Middle East policy and a law degree from George Washington University.
Ashmawy’s experience as a military prosecutor was appealing to Wise, who himself had come to the office from the Justice Department. But his resourcefulness as a defense attorney has also proved useful.
In the military, defense attorneys’ subpoena requests go through the government, which can potentially reveal important information about how they plan to handle the case. Ashmawy says he made the tactical decision to avoid using them.
“I would do my own investigations from scratch for my clients, and I would do it without the benefit of a subpoena. I got very good at calling people up and getting them to cooperate,” Ashmawy said.
The skill is valuable in an ethics office that was not given the authority to subpoena testimony or documents.
“You have to talk to people in a way that gets the information you need,” Wise said. “You need to put certain people at ease when that’s appropriate and in other cases impart on them the seriousness of the situation, and Omar does both of those things.”
The office is small. There are just seven staffers in addition to Ashmawy, and not all of them work on investigations. Its annual budget is only $1.5 million. Even so, the OCE opened 32 cases during the 112th Congress as of the end of the second quarter. Ten of those were sent to the Ethics Committee for further review. Ashmawy credits the commitment of his co-workers – and a little bit of elbow grease – when asked how he makes it work.
“People ask me how and I always say that we are doing it the old fashioned way – really hard work and dogged determination,” Ashmawy said. “The process is working and I’m proud to be a part of it.”