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Cuellar pushes back on DOJ indictments

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar said funding is on the way to assist San Antonio with humanitarian aid for migrants
Brian Kirkpatrick
Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar said funding is on the way to assist San Antonio with humanitarian aid for migrants

Henry Cuellar has represented the 28th Congressional District of Texas since 2005 and he doesn’t intend to stop despite his legal problems.

“Well, first of all you know my wife and I are innocent of the allegations that the government Washington DC prosecutors have made,” Cuellar explained while sitting behind a large wooden desk in his personal office off of downtown Laredo.

On the desk are stacks of papers and documents which accumulate while he continues to do the work of being a border congressman. He explains he’s been busy getting appropriations for his district, like funds for colonias and working with the many stakeholders on managing the water and security of the Rio Grande.

According to a federal indictment, Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, are accused of accepting almost $600,000 in bribes from Azerbaijan and a Mexican bank.

Cuellar has said he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for members of Congress.

“I did seek legal advice before and two ethics opinions also. Everything was in writing before anything and we tried to sit down with the prosecutors, but they didn't want to meet,” he said.

This was Cuellar’s first one-on-one in depth interview he’s given since the indictment. And he explained that he followed congressional ethics procedures, but because of the litigation, he couldn’t address the details of the charges or his defense.

“So here we are. And I am limited as to what I can say, of course, but certainly, at the time of trial and after we win this, we certainly will be talking about this a lot more in detail,” he said.

In the world of politics, the chattering class have placed Cuellar’s indictments in contrast against the many legal problems and felony convictions of former President Donald Trump. The likely Republican presidential nominee has complained, without evidence, that he is the victim of a weaponized Department of Justice. Some have used Cuellar, who is a Democrat, to make the point that the DOJ is non-partisan since it goes after both parties.

But Cuellar sees that differently. He says he could be the victim of a politicized Department of Justice who wants him out of Congress. And he points to the timing pattern by the DOJ in his case and the election cycle.

“Let's look at a couple things," Cuellar said. "Number one, the last time they did the search. It happened about 40 days before the election,” he said.

The FBI raided Cuellar’s home in Laredo in January 2022, which was just weeks before early voting began in a tough primary where he was being challenged by progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar was pushed into a primary run-off against Cisneros, and he eventually won after two recounts and with a margin that was just under 300 votes.

Now two years later there is a new election cycle and Cuellar points out the DOJ comes with the indictments which he says they deliberately brought out before this election.

“My attorneys tried to sit down with them and ask them, 'Can we wait? You waited two years. Can we wait until after the November election?' They wanted to move forward,” Cuellar said, adding, “I certainly question their motives on that.”

Cuellar said he thinks he was targeted by the DOJ because he is a conservative Democrat.

“I think I’m the last pro-life Democrat in Congress. But I’m not one of those. I don’t take an extreme position. I think there are exceptions for abortion” he said.

Cuellar said he supports sincere abortion exceptions, unlike in Texas today where the exceptions aren’t actually available to women who are having a health and pregnancy crisis. And he said people should be able to travel out of state for abortion care.

He also said he’s pro-Second Amendment, but he would vote in Congress for a bump stock ban. Last week, in Garland v. Cargill, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on attachments for semi-automatic guns which allow the shooter to fire multiple rounds with a single depression of the trigger. The high court ruled that Congress needed to pass a law for the ban to be constitutional.

“I support the ban. I support the ban,” Cuellar said.

But Cuellar admitted that with the current Republican majority in Congress, having a vote on the ban isn’t likely.

Another person who says Cuellar is being targeted by the Department of Justice is Donald Trump.

“Even President Trump tweeted out supporting me,” he said. On May 5th, Trump posted on Truth Social commenting on Cuellar’s indictments. He called Cuellar a “Respected Democrat Congressman," adding that “He was for Border Control” And isn't someone who would go with what the former president characterizes as “Joe Biden’s open border game.”

Trump also claims the FBI and Department of Justice are being used to “take him out.”

Cuellar sees that social media post as high praise.

“I’ve been very tough on the border, and I’ve criticized the Biden administration,” he said.

However, Cuellar said Biden is now finally catching up and securing the border, but he should have taken these steps years ago.

Trump praising Cuellar for his stance on the border makes it difficult for Republican Jay Furman to campaign against Cuellar in the general election using the border as an issue.

Earlier this month the National Republican Congressional Committee reversed itself and decided to finance the retired Navy commander’s challenge against Cuellar.

Furman did not respond to requests for comment, but in an online video message he highlighted Cuellar’s indictments.

“It’s time for these guys to go. It’s time for the establishment to be put on their heels and pushed out for their corruption and their attack on we the people,” he said.

Cuellar said he’s not too concerned by Furman because he isn’t from the border and doesn’t understand the area’s needs.

And now that his trial has been moved to after Election Day, Cuellar said he can focus on his campaign and, he says, winning re-election.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi