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Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar declares innocence amid report of incoming indictment

FBI agents raided the Democrat’s Laredo home and office in 2022 — weeks before his primary election — though his lawyer at the time asserted he was not the target of the investigation.
Posted: 1:13 PM, May 03, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-03 14:13:58-04
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, speaks about the U.S.-Mexico border at the World Trade Bridge at a news conference in Laredo on Feb. 17, 2023.

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WASHINGTON (Texas Tribune) — U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, asserted his innocence in a statement Friday after NBC News reported federal investigators were planning to indict the longtime congressman.

The nature of the potential indictment remains unclear, though Cuellar's statement suggests his wife is also a target. FBI agents raided Cuellar’s Laredo home and office in 2022 — just weeks before his competitive primary election. His lawyer at the time asserted he was not the target of the investigation. ABC News reported shortly after that the investigation was related to Cuellar, his wife and one of his campaign staffers and their alleged ties to Azerbaijan. Cuellar is a member of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and has been a fervent advocate for the country's interests in Congress.

In his Friday statement, Cuellar said his actions were “consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

“I want to be clear that both my wife and I are innocent of these allegations,” Cuellar said without addressing what the allegations were about. “Before I took any action, I proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee, who gave me more than one written opinion, along with an additional opinion from a national law firm.”

A spokesperson for the House Ethics Committee declined to comment on Friday.

The Texas Tribune and several national news organizations asked a federal court to unseal the search warrant in 2022.

Cuellar traveled to Azerbaijan on a $25,000 trip with his wife Imelda in 2013, paid for by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians. Shortly after, a Cuellar staffer went on another trip to Azerbaijan with several members, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, that was also facilitated by the group.

The group is based in Texas and was led by Kemal Oksuz, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to partaking in the coverup of the Azerbaijani's government's role financing the 2013 congressional trip that included Jackson Lee. Oksuz admitted to lying in disclosures to the House Ethics Committee on the source of funding for the trip, which came from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic.

Oksuz also worked with Cuellar to establish a program for Texas A&M International University students to study energy issues in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. ExxonMobil and the Azerbaijani government were also involved in the creation of the program.

Azerbaijan is known for lavish spending on foreign lawmakers to advance its interests. The country has reportedly spent billions on treating European lawmakers in a practice derisively known as "caviar diplomacy." The country spends about half a million dollars a year on lobbying in Washington, according to OpenSecrets.

The 2022 search by federal investigators on Cuellar's home came only a few weeks before a competitive primary against progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros, a Laredo-based immigration attorney. He ended up winning in the primary by 0.6 percentage points.

Cuellar said in his Friday statement that he will still run for reelection in November.

Cuellar is the fourth-longest serving Democrat in the Texas delegation and is an established fixture in the House Democratic Caucus. He is known for occasionally crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans, including votes reflecting his personal aversion to abortion and in support of stricter border security. He is the only Democrat in the House who opposes abortion rights.

He is also a major proponent of the oil and gas industry, which is responsible for a large part of his district's economy. Azerbaijan is a major oil and gas producer.

Still, he is well respected within the Democratic Caucus for his prolific fundraising and reliability on major votes that count. Democratic leadership under Speaker Nancy Pelosi supported Cuellar when Cisneros challenged him in the 2020 and 2022 primaries. Cuellar won in both primaries and the 2022 general election, despite heavy investment from Republicans to flip South Texas. He beat his 2022 Republican opponent, Cassy Garcia, by over 13 points.

After Cuellar's 2022 win, Republicans have considered the district less competitive and are investing more heavily in the nearby Rio Grande Valley-based 15th and 34th districts. Two Republican challengers will face off in a May 28 runoff for the chance to challenge Cuellar in the general: Jay Furman and Lazaro Garza.

Furman issued a video statement shortly after the news of an potential indictment, blasting Cuellar as being part of an establishment that is "selling us to other nations."

"They're trading us for their deep pockets and their forever policies that are against the values of South Texas," Furman said. "Exciting that maybe one of them will get their due."

In a Facebook post on Friday, Garza said: "There is no place for corruption in Congress!"

The National Republican Congressional Committee also called on Cuellar to resign.

“If his colleagues truly believe in putting ‘people over politics,’ they will call on him to resign. If not – they are hypocrites whose statements about public service aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” NRCC spokesperson Delanie Bomar said in a statement.

Some Texas Democrats have already done so for another longtime lawmaker who was recently indicted. After the Justice Department charged Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, on several counts of corruption and bribery related to his ties to Egypt, a handful of Texas members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for his resignation.

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