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Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar indicted for allegedly accepting $600,000 in bribes from Azerbaijan company, Mexican bank

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar
Veronica Cardenas
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, were indicted on several federal bribery, wire fraud, money laundering and foreign interference charges on Friday.

If convicted, the Cuellars face more than 200 years each in federal prison. The indictment was unsealed Friday afternoon as the couple made their initial court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dena Palermo in Houston.

The DOJ said that starting in December 2014 and through November 2021, the Cuellars allegedly accepted approximately $600,000 in bribes from an oil and gas company owned by the Azerbaijan government and from a bank headquartered in Mexico City.

The payments were then allegedly laundered, "pursuant to sham consulting contracts, through a series of front companies and middlemen into shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, who performed little to no legitimate work under the contracts."

The DOJ said the congressman then allegedly agreed "to use his office to influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan," in exchange for the bribes.

It also said Cuellar agreed to "influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure high-ranking U.S. Executive Branch officials regarding measures beneficial to the [Mexico City] bank."

Cuellar’s Laredo home and campaign office were searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2022, related to an investigation concerning Azerbaijan and several U.S. businessmen.

After the raid, Cuellar’s attorney said that the congressman was not the main subject of the FBI’s investigation.

In a statement, Cuellar said he and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, were innocent of the “allegations.” Cuellar said that they requested to meet with the prosecutors bringing the indictment but they declined to do so.

Federal agents search the home of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in Laredo, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Valerie Gonzalez/AP
The Monitor
Federal agents search the home of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in Laredo, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Cuellar was a co-chair of the Azerbaijan Congressional Caucus and regularly met with Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S. He is also on the House Appropriations Committee.

In 2015, he coordinated a collaboration between Texas A&M International University in Laredo with a group called the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan — which has also donated to his campaign, according to Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics.

The collaboration centered around oil and gas studies with Texas students being able to take trips to the Baku Summer Energy School in Azerbaijan’s capital city.

Cuellar had ties to Azerbaijan before the Texas A&M program, including a $20,000 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 2013 paid for by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), which is not listed by name in the indictment.

Cuellar told media that he was cooperating with the FBI during the January 2022 search of his home and campaign office. Those raids took place as Cuellar faced Jessica Cisneros, an attorney from Laredo with a progressive platform, for the second time in an election for the District 28 seat, which Cuellar has held for almost 20 years.

On Friday, he added that he was still running for re-election in November. The 28th congressional district spans from south San Antonio, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley.

In a statement, Christie Stephenson, spokesperson for Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, said on Friday that "Henry Cuellar has admirably devoted his career to public service and is a valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus. Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process. Pursuant to House Democratic Caucus Rule 24, Congressman Cuellar will take leave as Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee while this matter is ongoing."

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Gaige Davila is the Border and Immigration Reporter for Texas Public Radio.