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Rep. Henry Cuellar and wife indicted on bribery schemes

Justice Department alleges Texas Democrat accepted $600,000 in exchange for official acts

Ranking member Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, speaks during a House Homeland Security Appropriations 
Subcommittee hearing last month.
Ranking member Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, speaks during a House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Henry Cuellar and his wife have been indicted in two schemes involving unlawful foreign influence, bribery and money laundering, the Justice Department announced Friday.

An indictment unsealed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas accused the Texas Democrat and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, of taking about $600,000 in bribes from the government of Azerbaijan and an unnamed foreign bank headquartered in Mexico City.

“The bribe payments were 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,” a Justice Department press release said.

Cuellar allegedly agreed to use his office to influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan and agreed to influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure high-ranking U.S. executive branch officials regarding measures beneficial to the Mexican bank, the DOJ said.

Cuellar and his wife each face a range of federal criminal charges, including five counts of money laundering, two counts of bribery of a federal official and two counts of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, according to the Justice Department.

Cuellar and his wife made their initial court appearance on Friday before a U.S. magistrate judge in Texas, the Justice Department said.

Representatives for Cuellar could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

In a widely circulated statement, Cuellar asserted his and his wife’s innocence and that his actions were consistent with those of his colleagues. Cuellar also argued that his wife, who has a career in business and tax consulting, was qualified to do her work.

“I want to be clear that both my wife and I are innocent of these allegations. Everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas,” Cuellar’s statement said.

Cuellar’s statement said he had consulted with the House Ethics Committee about his actions and intended to run for reelection this fall.

“Let me be clear, I’m running for re-election and will win this November,” the statement said.

The indictment comes more than two years after Cuellar’s home was reportedly raided by the FBI in connection with a federal investigation related to Azerbaijan.

The indictment alleged in one scheme that Cuellar and his wife were recruited by the company controlled by the Azerbaijani government shortly after a 2013 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The couple then entered multiple sham contracts with the company to receive bribes, the indictment alleged, in exchange for advocating for Azerbaijani interests in Congress.

“Pursuant to these corrupt agreements, HENRY CUELLAR promised to use the power and prestige of his office to advance Azerbaijan’s and Foreign Bank-1’s interests in the United States,” the indictment said.

That included Cuellar advocating for greater Azerbaijani control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region that borders Armenia, working on immigration issues for an Azerbaijani citizen and promoting Azerbaijan as a U.S. ally, according to the indictment.

Over the years, Cuellar communicated with foreign officials about language in the National Defense Authorization Act, appropriations bills and speeches he planned to give in Congress, and other matters, the indictment states.

Cuellar repeatedly referred to an unnamed foreign diplomat as “Sir” in text message exchanges included in the indictment. In one such exchange, the unnamed foreign diplomat asked Cuellar to ask an unnamed House member, a member of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, to withdraw an amendment that would pay to remove land mines from the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In the second scheme alleged by the indictment, a Mexican bank established a financial relationship between the Cuellar couple and two other unnamed people to facilitate bribe payments starting in 2016.

The indictment alleged that in exchange for the payments, Cuellar advocated for the bank’s interests, including an increase in correspondent bank relationships between banks based in Mexico and America.

Cuellar’s steps included meetings with high-ranking executive branch officials, consulting with officials at the Mexican bank about banking issues, legislation before Congress, the indictment states.

Cuellar, who has served in Congress since 2005, represents a Texas district that stretches from parts of San Antonio to a swath of the southern border with Mexico.

He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and is known as one of the more conservative Democrats in the chamber. He’s the only remaining Democrat in Congress who opposes abortion rights.

Christie Stephenson, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who previously endorsed Cuellar for reelection, said in a statement Friday that Cuellar has “devoted his career to public service and is a valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus” but that Cuellar would leave his post as ranking member of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee during the case.

“Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process,” Stephenson said.

Cuellar beat progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros in a close 2022 primary race. He went on to defeat Republican opponent Cassy Garcia in the general election with a tally of 57 percent to 43 percent of the vote.

Two Republicans, Jay Furman and Lazaro Garza Jr., will face each other in the GOP runoff later this month to decide who runs for Cuellar’s seat in the fall.

In a video posted on social media in January 2022, Cuellar said there was an ongoing investigation, but said the probe would show there was “no wrongdoing” on his part.

With control of the House determined by a few dozen competitive seats this fall, the fate of Cuellar’s seat could decide partisan control of the chamber.

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