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For those living in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, it looks like business as usual for Pervez Agwan’s campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Eye-catching “Agwan for Congress” campaign signs dot the sides of roads and advertisements on social media appear with frequency on phone screens.
There is little evidence of a direct response to the sexual misconduct allegations directed at Agwan and a member of his senior staff by former campaign workers that became public in early December after one of the former staffers filed a lawsuit against the candidate and the campaign.
Despite the loss of endorsements and a mass resignation of mostly female staff in late October and early November, Agwan is attempting to charge ahead to the March 5 Super Tuesday primary election against incumbent U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher while quietly putting the scandal to rest.
A spokesperson for the campaign invited the Houston Landing to interview Campaign Manager Alex Inkiow in late December. Inkiow offered an account of four months of internal strife while denying the key allegations against Agwan and Organizing Director Angelo Perlera. His assertions were contradicted in separate interviews with several ex-staffers accusing Perlera, Agwan and a former senior campaign staff member of sexual misconduct.
Inkiow’s key claim that senior staff were unaware of any reported inappropriate workplace behavior by Perlera prior to a lawsuit being filed on Dec. 1 is contradicted by text messages shared by former staffers and the campaign’s own statement in response to the filing of the lawsuit.
The campaign did not respond to requests from the Landing for any internal correspondence that could support its claim that it was unaware of the allegations, and Agwan failed to appear for a scheduled interview.
In the lawsuit and subsequent interviews, former staffers allege there were three patterns of misconduct by three men with the campaign.
The first allegation is the only one Inkiow acknowledged.
Over Santiago Garcia Lopez, 26, was arrested in front of staff at the Mahatma Gandhi District campaign headquarters on Aug. 22. Garcia Lopez, who was the organizing director at the time, is charged with Improper Relationship with a Student and Sexual Performance with a Child, accused of engaging in a relationship with an under-aged student and recording sex acts during his previous job as a high school teacher, according to court records.
Inkiow said that prior to Garcia Lopez’s arrest, a teenage intern on the campaign showed the campaign manager inappropriate messages on Instagram to her from Garcia Lopez, who was her supervisor, in early July.
The campaign was planning to terminate Garcia Lopez prior to his August arrest, but it primarily was for “performance” in his role as organizing director, Inkiow said.
“We were at the very last straw because he wasn’t delivering the very baseline expectations of his role,” Inkiow said. “He was falling short of that performance, so we were just on the cusp of terminating Over right when he was arrested.”
Asked why Garcia Lopez was not fired after the Instagram messages were reported a month and a half earlier, Inkiow said the “evidence compounded itself” and the campaign would have fired him the day after he was arrested.
Garcia Lopez was released on $100,000 bail, and has a court appearance set for Feb. 7, according to Harris County District Clerk records.
Attorneys for Garcia Lopez did not respond to a request for comment.
The allegations against Agwan and Perlera detailed by former staffers interviewed for this article cover a two-month period of time beginning shortly after Garcia Lopez’s arrest.
In his interview, Inkiow said the campaign was unaware of any allegation of sexual misconduct against Perlera or Agwan prior to the Dec. 1 lawsuit being filed. Inkiow described internal workplace conflict over Perlera’s management style, but said he never was aware of anything more serious.
The campaign declined to make Agwan or Perlera available for interviews about the allegations, citing the pending lawsuit.
Garcia Lopez’s arrest was the first sign that something was amiss in the Agwan campaign, former senior staffer Jasmine Khademakbari said. The 24-year-old joined Agwan’s campaign Aug. 8. A University of Houston Student Government Association president from 2020 to 2021, Khademakbari said she long has been outspoken about her progressive politics and was excited to join a congressional campaign that publicly aligned with her values.
In early September, Khademakbari was promoted to relational organizing director, becoming the only female senior staffer on the campaign.
Jesus Nieto, 22, joined the campaign as an intern in mid-June working under Garcia Lopez before being promoted a month later to a full-time field organizer position.
Nieto and Khademakbari said they both were present at the time of Garcia Lopez’s arrest. Each recalled the day as traumatic for the staff and said little information was communicated to the campaign workers after Garcia Lopez was taken from the office in handcuffs.
The day of the arrest, Agwan told the staff Garcia Lopez’s arrest was the work of “Lizzie Fletcher operatives,” Nieto and Khademakbari said in separate interviews.
It was not until the evening that most staffers learned of the charges against Garcia Lopez, the former staffers said.
Within days, Perlera was hired to replace Garcia Lopez.
Former staff who spoke to the Houston Landing said Perlera began verbally abusing staff shortly after his arrival in late August.
Nieto said Perlera once screamed at him in front of other staffers, calling him a “wage thief” and sent late night texts to criticize staff performance.
Maha Chishtey, who filed the Dec. 1 lawsuit against Agwan and the campaign, was 21 when she joined the campaign on a part-time fellowship that began late in August. She said she met Agwan in early July and was excited to work for a candidate who had a nearly identical background to her – a south Asian living in Houston, Muslim and progressive.
According to her lawsuit, Chishtey joined the staff about the same time as Perlera and “almost immediately” felt uncomfortable with his behavior, which included inappropriate touching and comments directed toward young women on staff.
“He is the strangest man I have ever met in my entire life,” Chishtey said in an interview. “The man is an enigma.”
Chishtey and Khademakbari separately described Perlera grabbing and holding onto their hands when they returned his high-fives. To avoid the uncomfortable high-fives, Khademakbari said she started offering fist bumps in return. Perlera would simply grab onto her closed fist instead, she said.
Staffers said they initially brushed off the behavior as isolated incidents before realizing almost every woman on the campaign was experiencing similar behavior.
Nieto described once walking into the office while Perlera was rubbing the shoulders of a seated female staffer. Nieto said she was making “help me eyes” toward him, but he felt powerless to intervene because Perlera was his direct supervisor.
Text messages shared with the Landing appear to show Perlera sending compliments about staffers’ appearances and heart emojis in late September and early October.
On Oct. 4, Chishtey and Khademakbari approached Agwan to report Perlera’s behavior.
In separate interviews, the pair described Agwan’s reaction as defensive. Toward the end of the meeting, Agwan asked them both how they wanted him to address the situation.
“We felt like it was our responsibility to discipline Angelo and it made me really uncomfortable,” Chishtey said.
Later in the day, Agwan, Perlera and other male senior staffers held a meeting.
Included in her lawsuit is a screenshot of an Oct. 4 text message from Agwan to Chishtey that read “Took care of it. Keep me posted if anything happens. It won’t and shouldn’t.”
In the weeks afterward, Perlera cooled his behavior but the atmosphere in the office remained tense, the former staffers said.
Chishtey’s lawsuit also accuses Agwan of assault, battery and false imprisonment during a meeting that occurred Oct. 17. Chishtey declined to comment on the incident, citing the pending lawsuit.
The suit states that Agwan summoned Chishtey to his campaign headquarters, where he was waiting for her alone. Following a long conversation, Agwan put his hands on Chishtey and attempted to kiss her, the lawsuit alleges.
When Chishtey declined Agwan’s advances, he prevented her from leaving the office until after “what seemed like an eternity,” the suit alleges.
“The minute I got out of his vicinity, it was like, I started shaking so hard,” Chishtey said later, describing the experience as being in survival mode.
Agwan and the campaign deny the allegation.
On the drive home down the interstate, Chishtey said she was worried she was going to crash. When she got home, she stayed in her closet shaking for most of the night, she said.
Chishtey said the next few weeks were a blur as she largely avoided contact with anyone on the campaign while she processed the incident.
Chishtey was the first staffer to resign. On Oct. 26, she sent her resignation letter to Agwan, according to the lawsuit.
In the letter, she cited the Oct. 17 incident, writing that Agwan “subjected me to your unwanted efforts to engage in sexual activity and did not allow me to leave your office when I rebuffed your advances,” according to a copy obtained by the Houston Landing.
A version of Chishteys’ resignation letter that campaign leadership shared with the remaining staff did not include her accusations against Agwan, former staffers said.
Inkiow confirmed the letter was shared with staff, but denied anyone in campaign leadership had edited it. The campaign said it would provide Chishtey’s original email and resignation letter to the Landing, but never did, despite repeated requests.
Khademakbari said Perlera’s inappropriate behavior toward her stopped after the Oct. 4 meeting with Agwan, but she said she later learned it had continued with other young women on staff.
Khademakbari and other female staff members met with Agwan for an hour and a half on Oct. 30 to demand accountability for Perlera’s behavior. Agwan again became defensive, Khademakbari said, asking why he was being “attacked” by the staff and never mentioning an internal investigation into the allegations.
One worker quit during the meeting. At least 11 others, seven of whom were women, resigned in the coming days, Khademakbari and Nieto said.
Khademakbari sent in her resignation letter on Oct. 30, leaving the Agwan campaign without any women in senior leadership.
Inkiow confirmed there were resignations, but said most of the departures were due to the campaign’s fall fellowship coming to an end in late October.
Cease-and-desist letters were sent to staff who resigned, some within minutes of tendering their resignations. The letters noted staffers signed non-disclosure agreements as part of their contracts.
A former staffer who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation provided a copy of the cease-and-desist letter and a screenshot of a Nov. 1 text message purported to be from Agwan in which he says he “let Angelo go” and is “starting fresh.”
Perlera, however, remains employed by the campaign, a spokesperson confirmed. Inkiow said the campaign currently has a staff of about 30 people who are in and out of the office to varying degrees.
Determined to protect new hires from similar incidents, Chishtey said she decided to go public about her experience via the lawsuit.
“It solidified something in me, and I knew there was no way I could just let this pass or be excused or brushed under the rug,” Chishtey said.
She said she decided against filing criminal charges against Agwan because she wanted him held accountable but didn’t want to “ruin his life.”
In response to the lawsuit, the Agwan campaign released a statement calling the lawsuit a “dishonest hit-job” and appeared to blame it on the national lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC.
“My campaign is the only campaign in the state of Texas that is directly taking on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” read the statement. “I will not back down against the dirty lobbies coming after our movement.”
In follow-up text messages, Agwan doubled down, writing “we believe AIPAC and other industry lobbies to be behind smear attempts against our campaign.”
On Wednesday, the campaign insisted it had not blamed AIPAC in its initial statement.
The statement also claimed the campaign hired a third-party investigator to look into the claims “many weeks back.” At the time, the campaign said a copy of the internal investigation would be provided. The Houston Landing repeatedly asked for a copy of the investigation’s findings, but it was never sent.
By saying the campaign had hired someone to investigate the allegations weeks before, the statement undercuts Inkiow’s claim the campaign was unaware of any allegation of sexual misconduct against Agwan or Perlera prior to the lawsuit being filed Dec. 1.
When a spokesperson was asked to clarify Inkiow’s remarks, the campaign initially said it would do so but never provided a response despite multiple requests.
Asked to provide evidence of a plot to sabotage the campaign, Inkiow declined comment, saying he did not have a hand in drafting the statement.
The website, which was taken down a couple days later, also included Khademakbari’s name despite her not yet having come forward publicly with her accusations. The website noted that Khademakbari previously worked for Fletcher.
Khademakbari did work for Fletcher as an intern in her district office in the summer of 2021, shortly after graduating from UH, she said. The pair met once only on the final day of the internship at an event celebrating staffs’ work, she added.
Khademakbari said she is not being paid or supported by AIPAC or Fletcher.
“I would say it’s also anti-Palestinian to try to co-op this movement and try to make some sort of defense for himself,” Khademakbari said. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
Fletcher’s campaign declined to comment.
The Agwan campaign denied any connection to the website and condemned its message.
Earlier this month, a second website appeared online calling itself the “Houston News Network.” The site, which only has existed since mid-December, posted an article Jan. 5 claiming to have interviewed current members of the Agwan campaign, who were quoted anonymously disparaging the accusers.
Asked about the article and purported staff interviews, the Agwan campaign denied creating the website and said none of its staff had participated in interviews with people from the website.
The lawsuit was filed during a moment of national reckoning over the United States’ support for Israel following the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by members of Hamas in Gaza and the ongoing war launched by Israel in response. Progressives largely support Palestinian independence and an end to U.S. military support of Israel.
Agwan spoke about Palestinian independence prior to Oct. 7 and made the issue a cornerstone of his campaign after the war began. That allowed him to raise more than $1 million and secure an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Houston chapter. Facing a well-established incumbent in Fletcher, the campaign was a longshot prior to the allegations surfacing, but he received national attention for his fundraising and progressive message.
The Houston DSA since has rescinded its endorsement of Agwan after the lawsuit became public. The same day the DSA announced its decision, Agwan released a statement saying he was rescinding his request for the organization’s endorsement because he thought they were too supportive of Hamas.
Agwan contends his positions make him unique in American politics and a target for retribution.
The former staffers who spoke with the Houston Landing said they hold the same progressive positions as Agwan, and accused him of using the devastating Israel-Palestine conflict as political cover for his conduct and that of his campaign leadership.
“I feel betrayal and disappointment,” Khademakbari said. “Pervez has shown us he likes to wear being progressive as an aesthetic.”
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