Cuellar, wife indicted on bribery charges

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and his wife were indicted Friday on charges related to allegedly accepting nearly $600,000 in bribes and laundering the funds.

The indictment filed by the Justice Department (DOJ) details payments Cuellar allegedly accepted from an oil company owned by the Azerbaijan government and a Mexican bank.

“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,” the DOJ wrote in a press release announcing the indictment in the Southern District of Texas.

“In exchange for the bribes paid by the Azerbaijani oil and gas company, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to use his office to influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan. In exchange for the bribes paid by the Mexican bank, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure high-ranking U.S. Executive Branch officials regarding measures beneficial to the bank.”

The couple both pleaded not guilty in a Houston courtroom Friday morning and were released on a $100,000 bond.

The 14-count indictment details that Henry Cuellar would back Azerbaijan in its conflict with neighboring Armenia, including giving a speech favorable to the country on the House floor.

In his alleged dealings with the unnamed Mexican bank, Cuellar is alleged to have promised to pressure executive branch officials on anti-money laundering enforcement practices — one of the crimes which he now stands accused of. The indictment also says he pledged to support legislation to block federal regulation of the payday lending industry.

The indictment likely refers to Banco Azteca, a subsidiary of Grupo Elektra, a retail and banking company that’s part of a corporate conglomerate led by Mexican billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego. In 2012, Grupo Elektra acquired U.S.-based payday lender Advance America.

Henry Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, face a string of charges that could collectively carry more than a decade in jail time.

Among the charges are those for acting as an agent of a “foreign principle,” bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery, wire fraud, and various charges for wire fraud.

Henry Cuellar denied he or his wife did anything wrong in a statement issued before the charges were unsealed.

“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,” he said in a statement through his campaign.

“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. The actions I took in Congress were consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

He also defended his wife’s professional background, saying “she spent her career working with banking, tax, and consulting. The allegation that she is anything but qualified and hard working is both wrong and offensive.”

Henry Cuellar, who is a co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, will have to step down from his post as the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’s (D-N.Y.) office noted in a statement nodding to House rules.

“Henry Cuellar has admirably devoted his career to public service and is a valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus. Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process,” Jeffries spokeswoman Christie Stephenson said in the statement.

Cuellar’s Texas home and campaign office were searched in January 2022 in relation to the probe, and at the time he said he was not the target of the investigation. The indictment alleges that the couple accepted bribes from December 2014 to November 2021.

The payments to the couple initially went through a Texas-based shell company owned by Imelda Cuellar and two of the couple’s children, according to the indictment. That company received payments from the Azerbaijan energy company of $25,000 per month under a “sham contract,” purportedly in exchange for unspecified strategic consulting and advising services.

“This agreement was a sham used to disguise and legitimate Henry Cuellar’s corrupt agreement to take official acts and acts in violation of his official duties for the benefit of Azerbaijan and to act as an agent of the Government of Azerbaijan in exchange for bribes,” the indictment states.

The indictment also alleges an Azerbaijani diplomat referred to Henry Cuellar in text messages as “el Jefe” or “boss,” and also that a member of Cuellar’s staff sent multiple emails to officials at the State Department pressuring them to renew a U.S. passport for an Azerbaijani diplomat’s daughter.

Cuellar also noted earlier Friday he still plans to seek reelection.

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

The Texas congressman narrowly defeated Democratic primary challenger Jessica Cisneros in the 28th District, which runs along the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans have a May 28 runoff to determine whom Cuellar will compete against for the swing seat in the majority-Hispanic district.

Chris Flood, Cuellar’s attorney, told The Hill the indictment “reads like a spy novel, but it’s fiction.”

“There is no bribery. There was never a quid pro quo,” he said, something that undercuts the rest of the charges.

Flood also said DOJ erred in bringing the charges ahead of the election, noting the department similarly searched Cuellar’s home just a few months before the 2022 primary.

“Now they’ve issued an indictment which clearly could affect the general election,” Flood said.

Cuellar, a moderate Democrat, has played an interesting role in the party. He’s the only Democrat that doesn’t support abortion rights and frequently bucks the party on border issues and gun regulations.

The indictment makes Cuellar the second lawmaker in the last year to face bribery charges relating to a foreign government alongside his wife. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and his wife are facing trial for accepting bribes and taking action beneficial to the government of Egypt.

Raphael Bernal, Mike Lillis, The Associated Press contributed.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. EDT

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