Henry Cuellar, Texas Representative, and His Wife Indicted on Bribery Charges


Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat in a crucial swing district, and his wife were charged with participating in a yearslong $600,000 bribery scheme involving Azerbaijan and a Mexican bank, according to a federal indictment unsealed in Houston on Friday.

The accusations against Mr. Cuellar, 68, and his wife Imelda, 67, center on allegations of bribery and money laundering in connection with their efforts on behalf of an oil and gas company owned by Azerbaijan’s leaders as well as an unnamed bank based in Mexico City, according to the 54-page complaint.

Mr. Cuellar, a Laredo native first elected in 2004, is also accused of acting as an agent of a foreign entity while a U.S. government official — by delivering a speech favoring Azerbaijan in Congress and inserting provisions into aid bills to benefit those who were paying bribes to his family.

The government claimed that Mr. Cuellar, who once served as Texas secretary of state, was paid to back legislation intended to stymie regulation of the payday loan industry, which has been accused of predatory lending practices against the poor. He also tried to weaken money laundering laws that affected Mexico’s banking sector, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Cuellar “agreed to influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure high-ranking U.S. executive branch officials regarding measures beneficial to the bank,” they said.

Many of Mr. Cuellar’s actions, taken at face value, appeared to be legitimate policymaking activities, albeit favoring foreign-owned businesses. But the indictment revealed a hidden narrative, and prosecutors compiled tables of secret payments that cast those actions as an illegal and mercenary scheme.

The couple was released on Friday after each of them paid a bond of $100,000 after a brief appearance before a federal magistrate in Houston. Shortly before the indictment was unsealed, Mr. Cuellar issued a statement vehemently denying wrongdoing.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, said Mr. Cuellar would take leave from his post as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee while he fights the charges.

Christie Stephenson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jeffries, described Mr. Cuellar as “a valued member of the House Democratic Caucus,” and said he was “entitled to his day in court.”

The long-rumored charges come at a precarious moment for an increasingly empowered Democratic minority in the House. It cast instant doubt on the party’s chances of holding a district that runs along the border with Mexico and has significant political and symbolic importance.

Mr. Cuellar is one of the more conservative Democrats in the House, the only anti-abortion member of his party in the chamber and an occasional critic of the Biden administration. But he is a reliable Democratic vote on most issues.

The criminal complaint echoes the indictment brought last year against Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. He and his wife were charged with accepting bribes on behalf of Egyptian businesses.

Payments to Mr. Cuellar and his wife, made from 2014 to 2021, were laundered through “sham consulting contracts” and shell companies owned by Ms. Cuellar, who performed “little to no legitimate work” under the contracts, lawyers with the Justice Department’s criminal division wrote. Two of the couple’s adult children are partial owners of the businesses but were not charged.

Prosecutors disclosed a detailed inventory of interactions between Mr. Cuellar and Azerbaijani officials that indicated a close level of cooperation, along with evidence that he pressured officials in the Obama administration to take a harder line against Armenia.

In January 2015 — after his wife had already been paid $120,000 by the oil company — the congressman emailed an unnamed diplomat from Azerbaijan the draft of a speech he planned to give on the floor of the House, according to the indictment. It praised the country’s effort to combat terrorism.

A year later, Mr. Cuellar texted the same diplomat to say he had introduced legislation that favored Azerbaijan.

“You are the best El Jefe!” the diplomat replied.

Around the same time, Henry and Imelda Cuellar were entering into a series of corrupt deals with a bank in Mexico, prosecutors said. In March 2015, the congressman expressed concerns the arrangement would be discovered and asked a bank official to create a middleman to “disguise” payments, they said.

“We need to find another scheme,” Mr. Cuellar told the official, according to the indictment.

In a statement beforehand, Mr. Cuellar maintained his innocence and said he had cleared his wife’s work with the Ethics Committee.

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

“Before I took any action,” he added, “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.”

Mr. Cuellar said he tried to meet with federal prosecutors in Washington to explain his side of the story, but they declined the meeting.

The F.B.I. searched Mr. Cuellar’s Laredo home in 2022, appearing to dim his prospects for re-election, but he won a close primary victory anyway over a more progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros. The primary divided prominent Democrats; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York progressive, backed Ms. Cisneros, but senior members of leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, campaigned for Mr. Cuellar.

On Friday, he vowed to continue his re-election campaign.

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic in the Caucuses region, has been at the center of several significant scandals that have touched on influence-peddling, corruption and election rigging.

It has maintained a robust lobbying presence in the United States, and has aggressively courted members of Congress in an effort to win support for its conflict with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In 2013, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, which is controlled by the country’s leaders, funneled $750,000 through U.S. intermediaries to pay expenses for a junket to Baku, the country’s capital, for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members, according to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Mr. Cuellar did not attend. But several other Texas legislators from both parties did — and also took home lavish gifts that included a crystal tea set and hand-woven rug.

Prosecutors said that payments to Ms. Cuellar’s shell companies, in the form of retainers worth $30,000 to $60,000, slowed after the public disclosure of the Baku trip in 2015.

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