‘It’s pure fiction’: Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar says he’s innocent after indictment accusing him of bribery, money laundering

FBI agents raided the Democrat’s Laredo home and office in 2022 — weeks before his primary election.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — This article was published with additional reporting from the Texas Tribune.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, was indicted with his wife Imelda on Friday on charges of accepting almost $600,000 in bribes from an Azerbaijani energy company and a Mexican bank, the Justice Department announced.

The Cuellars appeared in a federal courthouse in Houston on Friday over the charges, where the congressman, flanked by his lawyer, asserted his innocence in brief remarks to KENS 5 sister station KHOU. 

“We want to make sure people understand we are innocent of the allegation,” Cuellar said, while also laying out his wife’s qualifications as a financial expert. 

“It’s pure fiction,” added his lawyer, Chris Flood of Houston-based Flood & Flood. “His actions were consistent with many of his colleagues in Congress. Other than that, it’s pure fiction. There’s no bribery.”

Cuellar also said he “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.

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

Cuellar is a member of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and has been a fervent advocate for the country’s interests in Congress.

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.

An established fixture

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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