MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota Democratic candidate for Congress who is poised to become the first Somali-American elected to the U.S. House has denounced claims that she married her brother and committed immigration fraud as “disgusting lies,” and says allegations of campaign finance violations are politically motivated.
Ilhan Omar, who is running in Minnesota’s liberal 5th District, continues to be dogged by conservatives who have raised questions about her past. As the election approaches, the attacks are intensifying: Last week, Minnesota Republicans in the 5th District began a digital billboard campaign and launched a website that highlights the allegations, many of which were first raised by conservative media outlets in 2016 as Omar was running for her seat in the Minnesota Legislature.
Omar broadly denied the allegations in a statement to The Associated Press, but declined to provide documents or answer specific questions when pressed.
“We choose not to further the narrative of those who oppose us,” Omar’s statement said, adding that she believes the claims are being made by people who want to stop a black, female Muslim from sitting in Congress.
She faces Republican opponent Jennifer Zielinski, a virtually unknown first-time candidate, in a congressional district that includes all of Minneapolis and hasn’t been represented by a Republican since 1962. The seat is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for Minnesota attorney general.
Here’s what we know about the allegations and Omar’s responses:
Conservative bloggers alleged in 2016 that Omar was married to two men at the same time. Polygamy — having more than one wife or husband at once — is illegal in the U.S.
A timeline provided by Omar, and detailed marriage and divorce records, suggest she was not married to two men at once.
According to marriage records in Minnesota’s Hennepin County, Omar applied for a license in 2002 to marry her current husband, Ahmed Abdisalan Hirsi, who Omar says went by Ahmed Abdisalan Aden at the time. Records show a marriage certificate wasn’t issued and Omar has said they didn’t pursue a civil marriage but instead married in their Muslim “faith tradition.”
Details about Omar’s faith wedding haven’t been made public, but traditional Muslim and Somali marriages typically involve a process that includes approval by elders and a ceremony conducted by an imam.
Omar and Hirsi had two children, but ended their relationship in 2008, she has said.
Omar then married Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, whom she said is a British citizen, on Feb. 12, 2009, according to a marriage certificate issued in Hennepin County. Omar said that relationship ended in 2011 and the two divorced in their faith tradition, but Omar didn’t take legal action to divorce him until 2017.
The divorce records say that Omar and Hirsi reunited and had a third child together in June 2012. Omar legally married Hirsi in early 2018, a month after her divorce from Elmi was finalized.
Conservative online sites have alleged that Elmi is Omar’s brother and she married him to commit immigration fraud.
It’s unclear exactly what type of fraud is alleged, but spouses of U.S. citizens typically have a quicker path to citizenship than siblings, though neither is guaranteed citizenship. In addition, marriage fraud is a federal crime and could result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
Sorting out these claims is difficult without access to immigration records, birth certificates or other documents that could prove parentage or family lineage.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said records about individuals cannot be released without written permission from that individual. Omar’s campaign has said she and others can’t get birth certificates because the infrastructure in Somalia collapsed during a civil war that displaced over 2 million Somalis.
Omar and her campaign have declined to provide the AP with a list of her siblings, but she has said publicly that she is the youngest of seven children. Elmi’s birthdate on the couple’s marriage certificate would make him three years younger than her.
Omar said in a 2016 statement: “Insinuations that Ahmed Nur Said Elmi is my brother are absurd and offensive.” The AP’s efforts to speak with Elmi were unsuccessful.
In an Aug. 22, 2016, letter to Omar’s attorney at the time, President Barack Obama appointee and then-U.S. Attorney Andy Luger wrote that his office was not investigating Omar’s immigration status and had not requested an investigation. When asked if an investigation had been taken up by the new U.S. attorney appointed by President Donald Trump, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it’s against Justice Department policy to publicly confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
As for Omar’s own immigration story, she was a child when her family fled Somalia, a nation of about 12 million in Africa, after it was shattered by a civil war in 1991. She spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya and immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1995. She became eligible for citizenship five years after their entry, and Omar became a citizen in 2000, when she was 17.
There are also allegations that Omar committed perjury when she said in her 2017 divorce filing that she’d had no contact with Elmi since June of 2011.
These claims are based on unverified photos that appear on conservative news sites. The allegations are difficult to verify or disprove because Omar has declined to directly address the issue and the man who some have alleged is her ex-husband has not responded to AP’s requests for comment.
In her divorce papers, Omar said in 2017 that she hadn’t had contact with Elmi since June 2011, that she believed he was in London, and that she didn’t know how to reach him. But conservative bloggers have said a man also named Ahmed Elmi was photographed at an event with Omar in London years after she claimed there was no contact.
That man told Alpha News, a right-leaning online news site, in 2016 that he was the man in group pictures with Omar, but he denied knowing her and said he had never been married. He has not responded to inquiries from AP by phone, email or over social media.
While this could be a case of mistaken identity, there are several coincidences that suggest the possibility of a connection between Omar and the man who claimed he doesn’t know her.
Among them, his LinkedIn account says he went to North Dakota State University: Elmi and Omar also went to North Dakota State University, according to university records. His LinkedIn account lists art as a major, which the university says Elmi also studied.
According to North Dakota State University records, Elmi attended the school from August 2010 through May of 2012. The man who spoke with Alpha News gave the website a different birthdate and year of attendance. The university had no record of anyone with the name and birthdate given to Alpha News, and it had no record of anyone with his name attending school in 2005, the year he provided to Alpha News.
In addition, his Instagram account contains pictures of Minneapolis scenes that are dated in 2012; Elmi, Omar’s ex-husband, lived in Minneapolis in 2012, according to court records that show he was evicted from an apartment that year.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE QUESTIONS
More recently, a Republican state representative has accused Omar of misuse of campaign funds, including spending $3,000 in campaign money on personal travel.
While Omar said these claims are politically motivated, the Republican who made the complaints said at least one of them is being investigated.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski is questioning Omar’s campaign purchase of a plane ticket to the Baltic country of Estonia and another ticket to Boston to speak at a political rally. Under state law , trips must be reasonably related to serving in office.
Omar’s campaign said in a statement to AP that Drazkowski’s allegations are politically motivated “and it should be concerning to his constituents that he is using taxpayer dollars to harass a Muslim candidate.”
Drazkowski had earlier suggested that Omar used $2,250 in campaign funds to pay a lawyer for her divorce proceedings. Omar has said those payments to her attorney were campaign-related fees.
There is a provision in state law that says money raised for political purposes can’t be used for personal use. Drazkowski said the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board has told him that it’s investigating that complaint, but as of Tuesday he hadn’t heard if it is also investigating the complaint about her travel spending.
Campaign finance board executive director Jeff Sigurdson said he can’t confirm or deny whether the board is investigating.
Drazkowski had also raised another complaint against Omar, alleging she violated state House rules when she accepted speaking fees from public colleges. Omar has since returned the money.
Omar said in her statement: “We have not been cited for any campaign violations, and look forward to working with the Campaign Finance Board in a fair and transparent process.”
The Star Tribune said in an editorial published Friday that Omar needs to be more transparent about her use of campaign funds before the Nov. 6 election.
“Omar owes a fuller explanation to Fifth District voters — and soon,” the newspaper said.
Omar said in a statement that she’s focused on the issues instead of the allegations.
“We recognize how these folks are deeply invested in stopping a progressive, Black, Muslim, hijab-wearing, immigrant woman,” Omar said. “We know these people are part of systems that have historically been disturbingly motivated to silence, discredit and dehumanize influencers who threaten the establishment.”