From South Texas to Azerbaijan, feds say Rep. Cuellar took bribes to push former Soviet republic’s interests

dfwnewsa | May 4, 2024 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News

From South Texas to Azerbaijan, feds say Rep. Cuellar took bribes to push former Soviet republic’s interests
Henry Cuellar
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A sprawling 54-page indictment against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, details allegations about how he used his position in Congress to influence legislation beneficial to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan while his wife took bribes from that country under the guise of consulting contracts.

The indictment against Henry and Imelda Cuellar was unsealed on Friday.

The Cuellars deny the allegations.

“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,” Henry Cuellar said in a statement.

The Cuellars are each charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery of a federal official; two counts of bribery of a federal official; two counts of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud; two counts of violating the ban on public officials acting as agents of a foreign principal; one count of conspiracy to commit concealment money laundering; and five counts of money laundering.

Henry Cuellar, a Democrat running for reelection, has represented the Laredo-based district since 2005. He has been reelected nine times. He has been on the House Committee on Appropriations, which is responsible for funding the United States government.

“As such, Henry Cuellar wields influence over a wide variety of federal policy and budgetary issues,” the indictment states.

He and Imelda Cuellar, who was a tax enforcement officer in Texas until retiring in 2012, married in 1992.

From December 2014 to at least November 2021, Henry and Imelda Cuellar agreed and accepted at least $598,000 in bribes from a foreign old company in Azerbaijan and a bank headquartered in Mexico City, according to the indictment.

The bribes were laundered through sham consulting contracts “through a series of front companies and middlemen into shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar. Imelda Cuellar performed little or no legitimate work under the sham contracts.”

FBI agents conduct operations outside the home of U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Laredo. (Valerie Gonzalez | vgonzalez@themonitor.com)

The indictment lists three unnamed shell companies connected to Imelda Cuellar that were formed between 2012 and 2021, including one owned by one of their adult children and another with partial ownership shared with two of their adult children.

In exchange for the bribes paid to his wife, Henry Cuellar agreed to perform official acts as a congressman as an agent to Azerbaijan and to the bank, including using his “power and prestige” to advance their interests.

“Henry Cuellar agreed, among other things, to influence a series of legislative measures relating to Azerbaijan’s conflict with neighboring Armenia; to insert language favored by Azerbaijan into legislation and committee reports governing certain security and economic aid programs; to deliver a pro-Azerbaijan speech on the floor of the House of Representatives; and to consult with representatives of Azerbaijan regarding their efforts to lobby the United States government,” the indictment states.

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As for the bank in Mexico City, Cuellar promised to influence federal regulation of the finance industry to benefit the unnamed bank and its affiliates.

“Specifically, Henry Cuellar agreed, among other things, to influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure Executive Branch officials regarding anti-money laundering enforcement practices that threatened Foreign Bank-1’s business interests; to support legislation to block federal regulation of the payday lending industry; and to support revisions to the criminal money-laundering statutes favored by the Mexican corporate conglomerate of which Foreign Bank-1 was a member,” the indictment states.

THE ALLEGED SCHEME

Federal prosecutors said in the indictment that Henry Cuellar began developing ties in January 2013 with a businessperson of Turkish origin who lived in Houston and headed two nonprofits dedicated to promoting Azerbaijani and Turkic communities in the United States.

Those organizations receive funding from Azerbaijan’s national oil and gas company.

This individual sponsored Henry and Imelda Cuellar’s trip to Istanbul, Turkey and Baku, Azerbaijan at a cost of $26,125.

The trip, which was approved and disclosed via the House Committee on Ethics Travel Regulations, included briefings with high-level Azerbaijani government officials and a dinner with the oil company’s executives.

Shortly after that trip, the indictment said Azerbaijani officials discussed recruiting Henry Cuellar to prompt the country’s interests in Congress where a diplomat emailed the oil company’s Washington D.C. office with the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which included Cuellar.

In a video message shared Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar affirmed he’s still in the race to keep his seat as a South Texas congressman in spite of the federal investigation conducted at his home and office last week.
(Image from video)

The diplomat said in the email that they needed to work with those officials to “‘build an anti-[Representative-1] coalition.’ Representative-1 was a member of the Congressional Armenian Caucus.”

The government alleges Henry and Imelda Cuellar received their first bribe in February 2014 after negotiating a “corrupt agreement” with the oil company. It was $60,000, according to the indictment.

A contract was drafted for consulting services and on Aug. 14, 2014, it was revised where another Azerbaijani company was substituted for the oil company where it agreed to pay Imelda Cuellar’s shell company $20,000 a month for a year for unspecified consulting services.

“In reality, the contract was a sham used to disguise and legitimate the corrupt agreement between Henry Cuellar and the Government of Azerbaijan,” the indictment states.

In December of that year, Imelda Cuellar’s shell company received a $60,000 payment and the contract was terminated.

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Federal prosecutors allege this pattern continued in 2015, but paused when the media began reporting on a congressional investigation into the Houston businessman tied to Cuellar.

However, in February 2016 and May 2017, representatives with Azerbaijan again emailed Imelda Cuellar with proposals to continue the payments under “new sham consulting contracts,” which she forwarded to her husband.

The indictment alleges that beginning in mid-2017 the Cuellar’s received a third “sham contract” that culminated in a $240,000 bribe payment.

The indictment includes email and text communications between the Cuellars and an Azerbaijani diplomat for a meeting at a San Antonio steakhouse about helping the oil company find business partners in Houston.

It also includes communications between the Cuellars over drafts of the contract.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar talks about the work he has done in Washington D.C. during the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Congressional Luncheon Wednesday October 19, 2016 in McAllen. photo by Nathan Lambrecht/nlambrecht@themonitor.com

Through two of the shell companies, the indictment alleges the Cuellars received at least $360,000 in bribes through three sham contracts with Azerbaijan’s national oil company.

Then, in 2021, they got their children involved and the contracts continued, according to the indictment.

‘OFFICIAL ACTS’

The indictment also lays out what prosecutors say are Henry Cuellar’s “official acts” on behalf of the government of Azerbaijan.

On May 5, 2014, Henry Cuellar emailed an Azerbaijani diplomat, the Houston businessman and an associate of his that he had placed language within that year’s National Defense Authorization Act that directed the secretaries of Defense and State to “‘develop a strategic framework for United States security force assistance and cooperation in the European and Eurasian regions’ — which included Azerbaijan — and submit a report to Congress.”

He also promised to set up a meeting at the request of the Azerbaijani diplomat with the Department of Defense, according to the indictment.

On June 23, 2014, the indictment alleges that Henry Cuellar told the diplomat that he would “try [his] best” to keep an amendment offered to a bill by the representative from the Congressional Armenian Caucus out of the legislation.

In January 2015, the indictment said that one of Henry Cuellar’s staffers reached out to the Houston businessman to solicit input on “Azerbaijan-related language in an Appropriations Committee Report.” The businessman then got input from the Embassy of Azerbaijan that was related to trade, which Henry Cuellar sent to his staff.

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The indictment alleges that Henry Cuellar also gave the Houston businessman a draft of the speech he planned to give on the floor of the House of Representatives to honor Azerbaijani Republic Day.

“On April 11, 2016, Henry Cuellar wrote a letter to U.S. Official-1, a high-ranking Executive Branch Official, accusing Armenia of being a ‘proxy’ for Russia ‘to intimidate U.S. partners, including Azerbaijan,’ and expressing support for ‘the withdrawal of the military forces from the occupied territories,’ meaning the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“On April 12, 2016, one of Henry Cuellar’s staffers emailed the letter to Azerbaijani Diplomat-1 and stated that the letter ‘was sent to our White House legislative affairs contact.”

FBI agents conduct operations outside the campaign headquarters of U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Laredo.
(Valerie Gonazlez | vgonzalez@themonitor.com)

In September 2017, the indictment said the Azerbaijani diplomat texted Henry Cuellar related to opposition to an amendment in the Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Act for Fiscal Year 2018 proposed by another representative with the Congressional Armenian Caucus that would have funded $1.5 million to clear landmines in a disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Those efforts were supported by Armenia and opposed by Azerbaijan,” the indictment states.

Federal prosecutors also allege that Henry Cuellar’s staff pressured Department of State officials to renew the Azerbaijani diplomat’s daughter’s passport.

It also details another effort in March 2019 to block a third member of the Congressional Armenian Caucus’ efforts to get a pro-Armenian amendment passed.

“In the summer of 2020, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region began to escalate, culminating in open hostilities in the fall of 2020,” the indictment states.

In June 2020, Henry Cuellar texted the diplomat that he would look at adding an amendment related to countries, like Armenia, that host Russian bases.

For his part, prior to taking any action, Cuellar 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. The actions I took in Congress were consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

The post From South Texas to Azerbaijan, feds say Rep. Cuellar took bribes to push former Soviet republic’s interests appeared first on MyRGV.com.

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