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Third person pleads guilty in Cuellar bribery investigation

Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) speaks during a press conference about The US-Mexico Border, today on July 30, 2021 at Senate Estudio/Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA. (Photo by Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto)NO USE FRANCE
Lenin Nolly
/
Reuters
Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) speaks during a press conference about the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021.

A woman from Houston was the third person to plead guilty in the investigation of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and his wife Imelda Cuellar for alleged bribery and money laundering, according to a recently unsealed plea agreement.

It was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.

During a hearing closed to the public on May 1, the same day Henry and Imelda Cuellar were indicted, the Express-News reported that 67 year old Irada Akhoundova secretly entered a guilty plea to a charge of failing to register as a foreign agent for the country of Azerbaijan.

Registration is required by federal law for anyone engaging in lobbying activities on behalf of a foreign government.

The Department of Justice accused the Cuellars of laundering more than $600,000 in bribes from an oil and gas company owned by the Azerbaijan government and also from a bank headquartered in Mexico City from December 2014 and through November 2021.

Akhoundova entered a guilty plea for coordinating a $60,000 payment to Imelda Cuellar in federal court.

Cuellar’s former campaign manager, Colin Strother, and another consultant, Florencio "Lencho" Rendon, were the first two people to plead guilty in the investigation. They admitted to helping the Cuellars launder more than $200,000 in bribes from the Mexican Bank Banco Azteca.

The Cuellars pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Akhoundova has served as the president of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association, a nonprofit that builds ties between the Texas city and Azerbaijan’s capital.

By the time he and his wife were indicted Friday on federal charges of money laundering, bribery, and conspiracy, many of his supporters had already moved on from the news that his office was raided by the FBI in January 2022.

As the president of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association, Akhoundova advocated for establishing relationships between Azerbaijan and the United States, including with diplomats, lawmakers, and other government officials from both countries.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that the Cuellars laundered payments, "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.

Louis Anthony Pellegrino III, one of Akhoundova’s lawyers, told the Express-News that he “wouldn’t be able to comment” on whether she was cooperating with the Justice Department.

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.

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 has confirmed he is still running to represent the 28th Congressional District, which spans from south San Antonio, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley.

If convicted, the Cuellars could face more than 200 years each in federal prison.

Akhoundova was released after entering her plea and ordered to have no contact with a short list of potential witnesses in the investigation.

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.