GOP lawmaker raises concern over lobbyist gaining unauthorized access to online hearing platform

Greg Nash

A former House Democratic aide who was fired in 2017 after two criminal convictions gained unauthorized access to a virtual Homeland Security subcommittee hearing this week, according to a top GOP lawmaker.

Isaac Lanier Avant, former chief of staff to Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) who is now a lobbyist, was on the WebEx platform designated for lawmakers and witnesses for an hour during Monday’s hearing, Homeland Security ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.) wrote in a letter to House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Rogers said the incident raises questions about the security of remote House hearings, which are opposed by many Republicans who argue lawmakers should be conducting the proceedings in person during the pandemic.

“[Avant’s] presence on the platform for Members was noted for over an hour and he was only removed once the Minority informed the Majority,” Rogers wrote in his letter to McGovern. “His presence on the Members’ platform raises serious concerns about security issues related to remote Proceedings.”

Rogers asked McGovern to explain how he would “prevent future lapses in security during remote hearings.”

According to Rogers, Avant was not on the list of authorized users that was distributed to lawmakers before the meeting. House rules on virtual hearings stipulate that access to the WebEx platform be limited to lawmakers, witnesses, and staff who are on the pre-distributed list.

Congressional filings show Avant is a registered lobbyist for private prison company GEO Group, whose chairman and CEO George Zoley was testifying at Monday’s hearing, hosted by the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, to discuss how Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractors are responding to COVID-19.

A Homeland Security Committee spokesperson told The Hill on Thursday that, as the witness’s designee, Avant received an automatically generated email with the WebEx login information that was “intended for the witness only.”

A spokesperson for GEO Group denied providing access to Avant, writing in an email that the company did not provide access to anyone beyond Zoley.

When reached by phone, Avant said he did not have “any knowledge of the matter,” and declined to comment further.

The WebEx software allows users to speak and be seen in the hearing, while members of the public are limited to viewing the proceedings through an online streaming platform or C-SPAN.

McGovern was largely dismissive of the concerns raised by Rogers.

“While your letter equates this as raising ‘serious concerns about security issues,’ this episode would be more akin to an audience member sitting in the wrong area during a public hearing,” McGovern wrote to Rogers on Thursday. “When the attendance of this individual on the remote platform was discovered, they were removed and at no time during this public and unclassified hearing was the security of the platform threatened.”

Avant pleaded guilty in 2016 to failing to file income tax returns for five years and was sentenced to four months in prison. The next year, he pleaded guilty to falsifying a standard House security clearance form by stating he had filed income taxes in the years he had failed to.

Thompson fired Avant after the second conviction, in 2017, after 15 years as his chief of staff and a decade as Democratic staff director for the Homeland Security Committee, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

Avant set up a lobbying firm last year and GEO Group hired him in May 2019, congressional filings show. Avant also lobbied last year for another group that has business with Thompson’s committee, the Seafarers International Union’s political wing.

The House authorized remote voting and committee work by videoconference by a party-line vote in May.

Republicans have criticized the temporary measures, arguing they undermine their ability to represent constituents. They have also pointed to technical difficulties that have marred some hearings.

Alex Gangitano contributed.

Tags Bennie Thompson committee hearing Coronavirus lobbyist Mike Rogers private prisons WebEx
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